Here and There: Our Ethiopian brethren – the good news and the bad

The government would do well to invest more in organizations such as ESRA, rather than initiating one committee after the other to no avail.

October 20, 2016 13:44
4 minute read.

Jayjo Zyro, a student for communication in Netanya College, together with the two children he mentors under the sponsorship of ESRA. (photo credit: ARIZO WORKO)


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It was good news to read in The Jerusalem Post that the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) announced that it is donating $500,000 toward the cost of bringing the first 1,300 of 9,000 Falash Mura to Israel – 65 arrived here on October 10. That it has taken a Christian group to pave the way for the government to actually do something about these Ethiopian Jews, of whom 85% have relatives in Israel, is a sad reflection on our leadership. What is appalling is that some have been lingering in Gondor for 25 years in the most distressed transit camps and are subjected to local violence.

Falash Mura are also known as the Beta Israel of North Shawa – a remote and inaccessible place. They practiced their Judaism in strict secret while being forced to act outwardly as Christians.

With no contact with the Beta Israel of Gondor – who practiced their Judaism openly in Ethiopia – it is only recently that the Falash Mura learned of their existence as the majority today live in Israel.

In November 2015 the government announced its intention to bring home the remaining Ethiopian Jews. Virtually an entire year has passed and it is only now that we see glimmerings that this will come to fruition thanks to the ICEJ.

This is the good news. The bad news is the failure of successive governments to absorb and integrate successfully Ethiopian immigrants and their offspring.

New government committees are constantly being formed – the latest headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to seek ways of improving the absorption of our Ethiopian brethren; a somewhat bizarre situation considering some have lived here for over 30 years. Yet hardly a week passes when we do not read of facts contributing to this failure.

Recently Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said it was “natural” for law-enforcement officials to be more suspicious of Ethiopians and other migrants than the general population.

This could explain why almost 90% of young Israeli offenders of Ethiopian descent are sentenced to prison – three times that of other Jewish minors and almost twice the percentage for Israeli- Arab minors.

As a country of olim we feel we are qualified to understand the challenges of newcomers, yet we appear not to have taken on board (or perhaps turned a blind eye to) the specific problems facing Israeli Ethiopians.

A week ago I spoke with Jayjo Zero, currently studying communications at Netanya College, who came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1990 at the age of five, accompanied by his aunt. On arrival he was sent to a boarding school in Ma’alot where he remained until he was 17, when he entered the IDF. He is the sixth of eight children. His five elder siblings preceded him, arriving here in the Eighties when they too were placed in boarding schools in different parts of the country.

Jayjo’s parents and two younger siblings were the last members of his immediate family to arrive here in 1991.

They came with Operation Solomon when nonstop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Israel in 36 hours. The parents and youngest children were sent to an absorption center in Nahariya.

Zero’s story, he believes, is typical of many others. With six out of eight children being sent to boarding schools, this created an irreparable divide between them and their parents. The parents missed out on their offspring’s growing-up years. By the time they met up the children preferred to speak Hebrew – in many cases having completely forgotten their native Amharic – making it difficult to communicate. His parents suffered a deep sense of loss which remains until today.

I asked Zero if he personally had experienced racism. He replied in the affirmative having come face to face with racism while serving in the IDF. He believes that meeting an Israeli Ethiopian was entirely new for some yet hardly a justifiable reason for racist comments.

He is involved, as I am, with ESRA, a nonprofit organization whose flagship project is “Students build a community.”

Jayjo is one of our students participating in this program initiated some ten years ago in Heftziba – a neighborhood of Netanya. Its population is virtually 100% of Ethiopian origin. ESRA, in partnership with the Netanya Municipality, offers selected students the opportunity of living rent free in Heftziba in exchange for mentoring local children three times a week. It is not only about helping youngsters with their school work, it is also about enabling them to improve their self-image.

Until two years ago the children in Heftziba attended school in their locality with classes comprised almost entirely of Israeli-Ethiopian children. In September 2014 it was decided to disperse these pupils to other schools, outside Heftziba, as a means of integration with the general population – a decision long overdue in Zero’s opinion. This posed additional challenges for ESRA’s student mentors who now spend extra time helping their pupils with their school work as they lag far behind their new classmates.

The government would do well to invest more in organizations such as ESRA, rather than initiating one committee after the other to no avail. Is anyone listening?

The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. She is also involved in public affairs.

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