OPINION: Misplaced intentions

Last spring's official memorial service to commemorate the 4,000 Ethiopians who died on their way to Israel gives an example of what's wrong with the absorption process.

October 10, 2006 10:47
3 minute read.
OPINION: Misplaced intentions

ethiopians 88. (photo credit: )


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The Ethiopian community of 105,000 in Israel is in crisis. Too many people are living in substandard housing in disadvantaged areas. The Ethiopian children drop out of school and have police files opened against them at a rate higher than the national average. Spouse abuse and murder have become a scourge: Ethiopians make up one percent of the population, yet fully one-fourth of all wives murdered by their husbands in the past 10 years were Ethiopian. Extended families who were tight-knit neighbors in Ethiopia are now spread throughout the country due to short-sighted absorption policies.. As I see it, the root of the problem lies in the fact that the people making the decisions about the Ethiopians' fate are non-Ethiopian. While officials pay lip service to learning from past mistakes and including Ethiopians in decision-making, the truth is that non-Ethiopian veteran Israelis still make the decisions. Last spring's official memorial service to commemorate the 4,000 Ethiopians who died on their way to Israel provides a telling example. It is obvious that this service is important to the community. Thousands of members of the "Beta Israel" gathered under the huge tent in Mount Herzl to remember their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who never made it to the homeland for which they'd yearned all their lives, who died or were murdered during the harsh desert trek north. Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim opened his remarks at that ceremony by addressing the Beta Israel as "my dear brothers." The Beta Israel of Ethiopia, he said, had packed their belongings on their backs and started walking to Sudan after rumors spread through their villages that the dreamed-for time had come: the Jews were going to Jerusalem. And they died from starvation and disease during the long stay in Sudanese refugee camps while they waited for Israel to rescue them in what became known as Operation Moses. Never in the history of the Jewish state did a group of people sacrifice so much and so many to fulfill their dream of coming to the Promised Land. Years later, the State of Israel finally saw fit to formally commemorate those sacrifices. The service was dignified and moving. As the women fanned themselves and the men silently wiped at their eyes with their handkerchiefs, President Moshe Katsav called on veteran Israelis to get to know the story of Ethiopian Jews and their courageous immigration to Israel. White-turbaned kessim sat in seats of honor in several rows of chairs to the left of the podium. Ethiopian children and young people were among those who laid wreaths for the dead. Activists had struggled for 20 years until they were able to convince the government to recognize the enormous sacrifices that this community had made, to hold an official memorial at the Mount Herzl site and to dig the foundations for what is to be a memorial to the Ethiopian fallen there. But it could have, and should have, been done differently. Former MK Addisu Masala was the only Ethiopian to speak, and not even one woman, white or black, was invited to address the crowd. I would have had fewer white people, more black people and at least some women on the podium. I would have liked to have heard about some of the 4,000 people who died - who were they, what were their lives like, what made them laugh, who loved them? I would have liked to have seen them brought to life for us and for those they left behind, to have the huge number concretized into faces and names. All those who lost family on the trek and in Sudan should have been asked to stand so that we - and all of Israel, through a televised broadcast - could see with our own eyes the cost our 105,000 Ethiopian brothers and sisters paid and continue to pay for the privilege of living in Israel. As the ceremony came to its official close and we began to walk away, the haunting sound of chanting pulled us back. I turned and saw that everyone was standing in their places. The women stood with their palms turned up in supplication as the kessim led their people in a memorial prayer for the dead. But for some reason, this beautiful act was not held in high enough esteem by whoever planned the event to have been part of the ceremony. Both the absorption process and the ceremony would undoubtedly have better answered the needs of this community that we are privileged to have among us had they been planned by the people themselves. And then, perhaps, this miraculous aliya would have a happier ending.

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