It is always refreshing to heighten awareness on college campuses about the rich fabric of Israeli society that is often largely ignored by Israel’s biggest critics. For that reason, the Zionist Organization of America and Hasbara Fellowships co-sponsored a campus tour for Ethiopian-Israeli lecturer Zion Uness titled From Ethiopia to Israel: a Return Home. During his three-week tour, Uness spoke to more than 300 students on campuses in the Midwest, including Northwestern University, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, Ohio State University, Michigan State University, Butler University, and more.
Uness spoke about a wide range of topics beginning with his experience in making Aliyah from Ethiopia to Israel. He described the journey of taking part in the historic mission of Operation Moses in 1984, walking the 2,500+ miles from Ethiopia to Sudan, where he spent three years inside of a refugee camp before being airlifted to Israel. Besides telling his personal story, he provided students with his perspective on the culture shock that many Ethiopian Jews faced when they arrived in Israel and provided a general history of Ethiopian Jews. Uness also stressed how important it is for people to stand up for Israel and the Zionist cause. Julie Levitt, from the Israel Illini student group at University of Illinois commented on Uness’ presentation, saying, “I learned a lot about the struggles that Ethiopian Jews had to go through in order to get to Israel, and the challenges that they faced once they got there."
A point that was strongly emphasized by Uness was that poverty did not have that much of an impact on the community’s decision to leave for Israel. He explained that in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Jews had adequate food, shelter, and clothes – making sure to point out that what really motivated them to make Aliyah was their Zionism. Uness said, “We kept our faith throughout 2,000 years, in order to be in the holy land.” He continued this train of thought and stated, “I can remember being a young child and having my mother whispering in my ear about Jerusalem. I did not know exactly what it meant, but I always knew it was something special.”
After discussing the experiences that he had on the journey, Uness talked about the difficulty of life in the refugee camps in Sudan. He described how local tribes would surround their camps sometimes at night and burn down their shelters. Nevertheless, he focused on his family’s good fortune in getting through it and eventually making it to Khartoum, where they were airlifted to Israel.
Uness noted that it was a rough entry into Israel because of the culture shock. In addition to the language barrier, they needed to adjust to current technology, a secular culture, as well as to the Israeli diet which was much different than traditional Ethiopian cuisine. All Ethiopians were required to spend five years in absorption centers throughout Israel where they learned the language and about the Israeli culture that they were becoming part of. Uness showed quite a bit of humor in describing some of his adjustments and noted that at times he felt like he was “in the Discovery Channel.” One example of an adjustment to technology related to his reaction when he first saw television. He reported that, “when my friends and I started watching the TV we did not know what to think. All of us wondered, how did all of those people fit in that small box?” He also recalled the time when his mother first saw the television, saying that she was upset that she had not offered the people inside of the screen something to drink.
Uness noted that most of the Ethiopian Jews prior to making Aliyah had been living as if they were in the Biblical era. He noted that tragically many Ethiopians committed suicide following their arrival to Israel because of their perception that they were some of the only Jews left alive. With that perception, he explained that it was hard for certain people to adjust because the Israeli population was unexpectedly secular. Much of the community had expected that when they would arrive in Jerusalem, everyone would be wearing white, observing rituals, and living in a “pure” fashion.
Uness also highly emphasized the importance of education in his presentation. He stated that he realized how important education was for the Ethiopians in order for them to make contributions to Israeli culture and society. He pointed out that much has been achieved by Ethiopians in Israel in less than thirty years with many people becoming lawyers, doctors, and members of the government. When reflecting on the current situation in Africa, Uness said, “Ethiopian Jews are the perfect example that Africa is not a place without possibilities.” He further continued by saying, “Africa is a place without resources and we see that once the Ethiopian Jews adjusted in Israel and got the tools they needed, things worked out well.”
When speaking about his own experiences, Uness shared that he earned a degree at the University of Haifa and completed three years in the army. He described his time in the army as one of the best experiences of his life, saying that, “As an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, it was amazing to become so close with many others from different cultures, such as the Yemenites, Russians, Iraqis, and Arab Israelis who served alongside me.” This was a key part of Uness’ talks because it reinforced the rich multicultural dimensions of Israeli society where citizens from all over the world, “try as hard as they can to display their culture publicly.”
When looking back on the campus tour, Uness said, “I feel fortunate that I was able to share my story and give the students exposure into the great country that we have.” He also emphasized that he believes all students who are curious about Israel should hear his story to understand the history of the Ethiopian Jews and what they went through in order to make it to Israel. Leo Nayfeld, Campus Coordinator for Hasbara Fellowships added, “Students forget or are often unaware of the deeply entrenched Zionism in the story of the Ethiopian Jews and I believe that Zion’s story is a great way to spread the message.”
All in all, after traveling with Uness for three weeks, I can say that the tour was quite successful. It had an impact on the students who heard from him because not only did they receive a glimpse into the Israeli society, but they got to hear a personal story describing one of the biggest achievements to come about from Zionism. As Ilana Ramer from Northwestern University said, “I keep thinking about Zion’s story, and what a strong message it sent about Israel as a humanitarian and democratic country.” Julia Dose, who is in charge of Ohio University’s Bobcats for Israel club added, “It offered what history books cannot: a first-hand account from a real person.” From both the Zionist Organization of America and Hasbara Fellowships, it was a pleasure to co-sponsor Zion Uness.