Two recent events have convinced Avi Masfin that perhaps the Ethiopian immigrant community is experiencing better times: the first prize awarded to local theater company Hullegeb at the Acre Theater Festival and a Knesset decision recognizing the Sigd, one of the community's most important religious festivals, as an official holiday.
"Even those who are not Ethiopian Jews can have a day off from work for the Sigd; it's official now," says Masfin, deputy director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, the largest organization that represents the 120,000 members of the community, and the driving force behind this year's nationwide Sigd celebration.
The Sigd has been celebrated at the Haas Promenade in Armon Hanatziv in past years, but this time there was a dramatic addition to the traditional ceremony. "For the first time, we are not a weak and dependent community anymore but a proud and stable part of Israeli society. This celebration is now officially recognized by the state; and the kesim, our spiritual leaders, have agreed to include a special prayer for [kidnapped soldier] Gilad Schalit and his release. For us, it is a statement that means we are part of Israeli society. We give our share to this society from an empowered position. It is a tremendous change and improvement, and I truly believe that at least part of these achievements are related to the fact that most of our organizations are here, in Jerusalem the capital, where we are seen, heard and close to the people who make the decisions," says Masfin.
"It's easier for us in a big city," he continues. "In Jerusalem there are
more opportunities for jobs - even if it's only cleaning or guarding - but it's easier to be employed here. Perhaps we can also feel the different attitude of the establishment here - there is more investment in our needs, and so there is a better, or at least easier, integration. The fact is that many immigrants from Ethiopia, who have been living in other cities, move to Jerusalem because they know their chances here are better than in the periphery or any other city."
According to Masfin, things have even improved since Nir Barkat became mayor. "He has, right from the beginning of his term, appointed an adviser for the Ethiopian community. He hired a young and educated person, highly motivated, who is very familiar with the community and its problems and needs, so we feel that this mayor seems to genuinely care. This municipality [took] active part in preparing for the Sigd, even in its financing. This new attitude towards our tradition, like with the Sigd, which is finally no longer just an Ethiopian festival but has become a general Jewish Israeli celebration, is a great achievement for us," he says.
"It was the thing we missed the most in our community," continues Masfin. "The recognition of our traditions, of our Jewish traditions, to become part of the Jewish calendar for the Israelis as well. It was so important for us to see the traditions we cherished and protected for so many years become part of the norm here. After all, we have suffered so much to save all this - the 4,000 of our people who died on the way during our own exodus from Egypt. And when they finally arrived here, they were not given the recognition we deserve; by some they were not even considered Jewish enough. And though it is aimed at all the country, it is obvious that this could be achieved only from here, from Jerusalem."
THE ETHIOPIAN immigrant community is roughly made of two parts: the Beta Israel, which has been officially recognized as Jewish, albeit separated from all the developments in Jewish tradition over the years in the rest of the Diaspora; and the Falash Mura, who are Jews who converted to Christianity, mostly because of coercion. In the case of the first, they come to Israel in the framework of the Law of Return, whereas the Falash Mura who immigrate here are required to undergo a complete formal conversion.
"But in Israeli eyes," remarks Masfin, "we are all the same. They do not make any distinction between us. And above all, we still encounter so much prejudice and ignorance, even after we have been here 30 years. As was revealed in the Ono Report [a recently published study conducted by researchers at the Kiryat Ono Academic College, which surveyed dozens of employers and potential employees] employers still are reluctant to employ Ethiopians, even if they have all the skills and diplomas required. The fact that we are not alone to suffer from this - the report shows it's the same with Arabs and Oriental Jews - is no comfort to us at all."
So what makes it easier in Jerusalem for the Jews from Ethiopia, despite the fact that this city is the poorest in the country? "We have almost all the organizations of the community here, and are close to the government offices and national institutions, all the NGOs, all the facilities to reach the media, the university; it makes a huge difference," explains Masfin. "For us, for our association and all the others that represent the Jews from Ethiopia, it is a strategic decision to be here; it has its impact. We feel that there is a direct connection between our being here and our achievements."
About 20 different associations represent the interests of the Ethiopian community in the country. Besides a few local organizations in the periphery, most of them are located in Jerusalem. The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews is the only one whose activities are directed toward bringing about a social and systematic change on the national level, and most of its activities are done at the Knesset and before government representatives.
NEW OLIM from Ethiopia began arriving Jerusalem in large numbers right from the first immigration operations - Moses and Solomon - in 1984 and 1991. At first they were housed in one of the wings of the Diplomat Hotel, which was handed over to the Jewish Agency. Later on, they were installed mostly in the caravan site at Givat Hamatos, between Talpiot and Gilo.
"We have never experienced a situation like the ones that prevail in other cities, such as in Petah Tikva," says Wonde Kassahon, special adviser to the mayor for the Ethiopian community in the city. "We have never seen Ethiopian ghettos in schools here, though there are some neighborhoods where large numbers of members of our community live; but we have never seen classes exclusively of Ethiopian students, so the integration of the children has been much better, despite the shaky financial situation of many of these families."
Kassahon adds that for the moment, even the transportation for young Ethiopian pupils, whose parents cannot afford to pay for public buses, continues even after the mayor decided to allocate the funding for buses to other educational purposes.
"I have not seen any case in Jerusalem where youth from our community were not accepted at any event or place because they are Ethiopian," says Masfin Alamayo, coordinator at the absorption hot line operated by the municipality with the support of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.
"We have a youth club in the Talpiot industrial zone. It's not that this place operates only for young Ethiopians, but they are the majority. Anyone can go and enjoy the place and its facilities, but on Friday evenings they play Ethiopian music, so of course, most of the youth there are of Ethiopian origin. Even youth from Mevaseret go there, and I hear that quite a few young people who have heard about the place come from other cities. During the week we have a lot of various activities. We also have special preparation for army service. The motivation of our youth to serve in elite combat units is very high," he says.
But Jerusalem has even more to offer the Ethiopian immigrant community. The Hullegeb Ethiopian-Israeli Theater Group, created and produced by the Confederation House, won first prize this year at the Acre Theater Festival. In a special celebration for their achievement, the group's members were recently the special guests of the municipality and the mayor. Effie Benaya, the executive and artistic director of the Confederation House and initiator of the Ethiopian theater, once said, "This is part of my credo - to make of this place a gathering platform for all the various and rich cultural expressions of our many different communities, and Jerusalem is the most natural place to host this project."
"We can see that a large part of the people who attend the performances of the group are not Ethiopians," says Tracy Shipley Amar, representative of the theater group. "Israelis from all different origins come and enjoy it, like at the Acre festival. There were very few people of Ethiopian origin there, and it still touched the audience's heart."
Shipley Amar adds that working in Jerusalem has provided the group with all the best artistic facilities, and thus allowed it to perform - even such productions as Tarat, Tarat, a play based on folk tales - on a very high professional and artistic level, something it would not perhaps have achieved in a smaller city.
Despite all this, Jerusalem has a relatively small proportion of Ethiopian residents. According to a recent survey published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, only about 5,000 Jerusalemites are from Ethiopia or were born here to Ethiopian parents.
Kassahon says the number is much higher. "We have communities in four neighborhoods: Neveh Ya'acov, Kiryat Menahem, Katamon Vav and Tet, and Talpiot (including East Talpiot). There are no more olim from Ethiopia at the Givat Hamatos location. And we know about large numbers scattered in many other neighborhoods, so I think 10,000 is much closer to reality. Also, we know about a large number of young people and young couples who move from other parts of the country and come to live here. The rent is higher, but their chances of finding a job are much higher than in any other place, and they can make a decent living here. Sometimes they work in more than one place, but they earn enough to pay for their tuition if they are young or to improve their living conditions if they are families with young children. As for the students, they have so many options here, such as colleges, university. It's much easier."
Still, not everything is rosy. "We still don't have a synagogue of our own for our traditions. For so many years we asked for at least one place. Our community doesn't have the means to build a synagogue," says Kassahon, who mentions that during the former mayor's term, 37 new synagogues were added to the city, but none for the Ethiopian community. "We have to pray and preserve our traditions in rented and inadequate locations. It's again a feeling that our traditions, especially our religious traditions, are not recognized by Israeli society, and it hurts."
However, Kassahon adds that recently the municipality agreed to allocate a plot in Neveh Ya'acov. "Since we cannot finance such a project, the mayor has taken it upon himself to find support from some foundations."
According to Kassahon, another issue that is still pending is the lack of employment for the elders in the community. "We are working on a new project - with the participation of the Social Affairs, Youth and Sport Department in the municipality and the community councils and centers in the four major neighborhoods where most of the Ethiopians live - to propose some framework at least for the elderly. We are also trying to set up some programs to improve the employment of Ethiopians. To date, there hasn't been any clear policy of employment adapted to their skills and needs," says Kassahon.
MOLUKU, A student at the Hebrew University, lived in Ashdod until his army service. "During my military service, I came to Jerusalem for the first time, but it was a rainy day. They took us to lectures, and I was so tired I could hardly follow. So in a way, my first encounter with this city was not such a great one. But then I was invited to a party by some Ethiopian friends who served with me. We went to an Ethiopian restaurant, listened to Ethiopian music and met with other youth from Ethiopia. But we also met other Israelis - Anglos, locals and two Russians."
For Moluku, the lasting effect was a feeling of finally belonging to Israeli society. "The impression I got was that in Jerusalem, a young Ethiopian could easily mingle with non-Ethiopians and that it was not such a big deal. It's still easier for me - now that I am a student and I live here in a rented apartment with two Ethiopians - to be close to people like me, but the color issue is less important here, somehow."