My Word: Wings, prayers and refugees

For Ethiopian Jews, arriving in the country is only the start of a long journey, as any immigrant can attest.

November 20, 2010 22:59
Ethiopians in J'lem celebrate Sigd

Ethiopian Sigd festival Jerusalem. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

This could be Britain, I thought, when the third person at the bus stop started a conversation by mentioning the weather. But of course there’s a difference. For a start, we were all complaining about the heat and lack of rain; the “fog” that closed Ben-Gurion Airport was not the dark, wet smog of my misty childhood memories from London, and the dangers it posed were peculiarly Israeli.

Almost unnoticed in the local papers was a tiny item that a missile had fallen in the Negev (not news) and that the warning system had not operated, apparently because of the weather.

On the positive side, the peace might be the coldest thing in the Middle East – the settlement freeze notwithstanding – but travelers destined for TLV were diverted to Amman and Cairo from where they could cross the border into Israel by road.

And the weather brought out other surprising projects of coexistence. In an initiative led by Rabbi Menahem Froman of Tekoa, Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered under tauntingly blue skies at a site between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on November 11 to pray for rain, something the entire region is thirsting for.

At the Ginot Ha’ir community center in Jerusalem’s German Colony, religious and secular similarly met last week with a prayer in their hearts and on their lips.

I have contributed to the cause in my own way: Apart from praying, I bought a new pair of sandals in something billed as an “end of season” sale even though no end to summer was in sight. Murphy’s Law dictates that it should now finally start pouring.

The idea of praying for rain (or wearing sandals in November, for that matter) would have seemed utterly foreign to me growing up in England. I remember soggy, cold Succot festivals as we huddled in the booths meant to remind us of the Children of Israel’s travels across the desert.

The prayers of those traversing the desert came to mind recently.

The cabinet last week announced it will bring to Israel from Ethiopia some 8,000 so-called Falash Mura, or as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put it, “the seed of Israel.” The government decided to bring the community now living in harsh conditions in a refugee camp in Gondar over the next three years and then close the camp.

It has of course been said and done before. Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, in 1984 and 1991 respectively, were two of the most incredible airlifts in history. No other country has ever jumped at the chance of absorbing thousands of Jews who in no way fit the “rich and influential” stereotype. (Not that that saved them from persecution.) Bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel is, however, only the first stage. Once here, they must be properly absorbed.

The trouble with the Ethiopians is not that they’re black, but that they’re transparent, wrote an Israeli opinion writer a few years ago in a blistering critique of their absorption. Veteran and native Israelis just don’t notice them, she opined, giving as an example the fact that while almost all Israelis have picked up a few basic words of Russian as a result of the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, very few know any words at all in Amharic.

The situation is slowly – way too slowly – changing. It is often children and youths who are showing the way. Classmates and army comrades have turned close proximity into friendships. I even know a few “mixed” marriages where the offspring proudly accept the best customs (and traditional dishes) that both sides have to offer. But there’s a long way to go. Arriving in the country is only the start of a long journey, as any immigrant – even those arriving comfortably on Nefesh B’Nefesh flights – can attest.

I VERY MUCH doubt that the aid compound in Ethiopia will stay closed for long. Israel is too attractive a destination.

At the same time that the government and Jewish Agency were working out how to bring over the vestiges of the community from Ethiopia, various ministries were deliberating on how to keep out the flood of illegal immigrants, and Netanyahu again announced plans to build a sophisticated barrier along the Sinai border to block the migrants seeking to cross.

The migrants – most of them seeking a better life rather than escaping war and persecution – have been arriving in waves from Eritrea, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana. Well, to be precise, they’ve been arriving from Egypt. The African countries were their point of origin and had they been truly seeking only sanctuary they would probably have stopped before reaching Eilat, Arad, Beersheba, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and increasingly, and rather improbably, Bnei Brak. The latter is blessed with relatively cheap housing but not much tolerance for anyone who might be perceived as threatening its way of life. And these migrant workers might as well be aliens from outer space as foreign aliens in this haredi city. While there were deservedly strong condemnations of the Bnei Brak rabbis who forbade renting apartments to the migrants, I did not see the wealthy, nonreligious Tel Aviv suburbs opening either their doors or their hearts.

What has changed? The numbers. This is no longer a crusade for protecting the rights of families with cute kids who have overstayed their visas. According to the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, some 700 migrants crossed the Egyptian border in the first week of November alone. Figures show 10,858 crossing the border in the first 10 months of the year, compared to 4,341 in the same period in 2009. The migrants, most of them young men, apparently pay $3,000 for Beduin smugglers to help them cross the border, and you can’t help but feel sorry for them when they realize that the Promised Land on the other side is not all they dreamed of.

Unlike most Western countries, Israel still lacks a coherent, comprehensive policy on handling the new arrivals; like most of the Western world, it is not putting out a welcome mat.

Israel, the only Jewish state, is facing a huge new demographic threat along with the more familiar security threats that we’ve been coping with over the decades. Incidentally – without meaning to be a scaremonger but unable to keep this thought to myself – if so many migrants are able to successfully cross the border, how is the IDF meant to keep the determined terrorist out? Of course the country must continue to accept and protect those truly escaping the horrors of persecution. There are precedents including the Vietnamese “boat people” granted a safe haven by Menachem Begin in 1977 and the Muslim refugees escaping Albania and Bosnia of the ’90s. But Israel is not honor bound to adopt those seeking solely to improve their economic situation, however dire that might be.

What the world needs, I’ve come to the conclusion, is not fences but Herzls – visionaries like the Zionist forefathers capable of building (or rebuilding) communities and countries. What if, instead of people fleeing from poor economies, they pulled together to create better lives for all? Perhaps we should export Zionism.

With a few dedicated leaders and support from the rest of the world, Africa could gradually overcome its difficulties and become a place to go to, not run from. As Israel has shown: If you will it, even the desert can bloom. Of course, a bit of rain would also help.

The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post.

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