Jewish Agency representative in Ethiopia focuses on aliya

‘The immigrants need to take the responsibility on themselves when they arrive in Israel.’

By
February 8, 2011 23:43
4 minute read.
The Ethiopian Jewish community has traditionally been built on close-knit family ties.

Ethiopian women 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Ruppin Academic Center)

 
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The challenge facing thousands of Ethiopians waiting for permission to make aliya is no longer about fighting for the right to immigrate but rather about better preparing them for a new life in modern Israel, the recently appointed Jewish Agency head of delegation in Ethiopia told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

“It is essential for them to be prepared by learning Hebrew, studying Judaism and better understanding Israeli life and culture,” Asher Seyum, the first Ethiopian-born head of the delegation, told the Post in a telephone interview.

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“In every personal meeting I have with those about to immigrate – and I intend on meeting every family – I plan to tell them that their challenge is only just beginning,” he said.

“They are so busy thinking about making aliya that they do not realize the real problems can arise after they move to Israel, and that their goal is not just physically moving from Ethiopia to Israel but figuring out how to better blend into their new society.”

Indeed, according to a report published last month by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, Ethiopian immigrants make up a disproportionate share of those seeking help from social services.

Within the 110,000-strong community, more than 60 percent have active files with social workers and, even among the second generation of immigrants, the chances of them having met a social worker is twice the national average.

Seyum, who for the past two years headed the agency’s immigrant absorption operations in Jerusalem and the South and was previously the director of its absorption centers first in Safed and then in Ashdod, might be in a better position than most to help this new batch of immigrants – recently approved by the cabinet to make aliya at a rate of 200 people a month – to enjoy a smoother transition into Israeli society.



“It must come from them,” he said, adding that until recently the approach toward Ethiopian immigrants was always extremely “paternalistic,” with everything being handed to them very easily.

“I believe that the new immigrants need to take the responsibility on themselves when they arrive,” said Seyum, who made aliya at age 13 in 1984 and returned to work in Ethiopia just over a week ago. He is based in Gondar, where the majority of the Falash Mura – Ethiopians of Jewish descent – are waiting for approval from the Israeli government to immigrate.

“We have already renamed the compound a community center and I plan to improve the education system already operating here so the children are better prepared,” he said.

“Once a month I will give a presentation about an aspect of life in Israel.”

In response to the question of whether this – as pundits contend – is really the final chapter in mass emigration from Ethiopia to Israel, Seyum is equally as determined.

“The government made a decision to continue checking the eligibility of a certain group for aliya,” he said. “I am here to carry out the directives of the government. There is one group in Addis Ababa that claims they also have a right to make aliya, I can’t comment on that, my mission is to get those who have been approved ready and prepared for moving to Israel.”

In November, the cabinet unanimously approved the continued immigration of 7,846 Falash Mura who have been waiting in what many describe as inhumane conditions, some for more than a decade, for the government to allow them to come to Israel.

Descendents of Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity more than a century ago, the Falash Mura were originally approved for aliya under a 2003 cabinet decision and their Jewish heritage was recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

The community was then entitled to immigrate under specific criteria in the Law of Entry. In 2008, however, the Interior Ministry announced that it had finished its work in the region and its Gondar-based staff was recalled.

Community members in Israel, representatives of North American Jewry and key Israeli legislators, however, protested that there were still roughly 9,000 people who fit the criteria for aliya. It has taken a further three years of debate and discussion for the cabinet to re-commit to winding up this particular chapter in Ethiopian-Jewish history.

“The Interior Ministry representatives are now working very hard to check all those who might fit the original criteria for aliya,” said Seyum, who will be based in Ethiopia with his family for the next three years. “I believe that we will end this, and then those who feel they have grounds to make aliya in the future will be able to apply directly via the consulate here.”

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