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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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. email@example.com