Reencounter: Ethiopian Jews and their children

In the 1990s, in the years after the Israel Defense Forces airlifted 22,000 Ethiopian Jews in Operations Moses (1984) and Solomon (1991) to bring them to the Jewish homeland, an idea was born to have these new Jewish immigrants share with American students their experiences as Africans, Jews and Israelis. That idea resulted in ADL’s Children of the Dream, a program that began in Los Angeles and then quickly expanded across the U.S.
In American classrooms, recreation centers and across lunch tables, young Ethiopian Israelis told compelling stories of rescue from oppression in Ethiopia and their journeys to freedom in Israel. It was pow­er­ful and mov­ing to see these young Israeli men and women inter­act­ing with Amer­i­can stu­dents, who were awed by the fact that these young Ethiopian teenagers were not only immi­grants from a far­away land, but were also, remark­ably, newly minted Israeli cit­i­zens and Jews. In short, they did not fit the stereo­typ­i­cal notion of who is Jew­ish and what is a Jew.
American students responded with their own stories of discrimination and flight.
Although originally designed as a program to educate Americans about Ethiopian Jews and Israel, the program also served as a leadership development program for the Ethiopian Israeli students themselves. In the decade or so of the program, 120 Ethiopian Israelis received leadership skills in an intensive preparatory program.
A year and a half ago, when ADL celebrated its 100th anniversary, we had a reunion with our Children of the Dream graduates, many of whom have gone on to educational and professional success and maintained their connection to ADL.
At that event, the graduates shared what a life-changing experience they had – that because ADL believed in them, because they were selected to represent their community and their country, they believed in themselves.
I so enjoyed this reminiscing and catching up with these now-adults, that I asked if we could continue to meet and, next time, if they would please bring their children.
And this week, in Israel, we did. I met the spouses and children, and heard the success stories of our graduates who have gone on to higher education to build families, homes and careers. The drive, pride and energy continue to the next generation.
One of the children of our graduates, 10 years old, asked her mother if the “founder” of the program was going to be present. “Can I speak to him in English?” she asked. She approached me and said, much as her mother did some 15 years ago, “My name is Galit, and I wanted to talk to you in English to show you that I know. I practiced with my mother all the way.”
Current challenges were on everyone’s mind. The Ethiopian community in Israel has experienced difficult weeks with demonstrations against the Israel Police with claims of brutality and racism. These concerns, along with charges of discrimination and mistreatment, are real and must be addressed together with the community on every level of Israeli society.
There were nods and applauds when I said: “Is Israel a racist country? No, it isn’t. Are there racist people? – Yes. But this country took its soldiers into Ethiopia to bring the Jews here. Israel is not perfect and there is an opportunity to right past mistakes.”
One of the participants, who is now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, asserted, “I don’t believe this country is racist.” Several others added, “The violent demonstrations won’t serve us well. Now we have to work together to improve our situation.”
We have rejoiced in the story of the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews for decades and the strength and inspiration they have brought to the Jewish state.
The story is not yet over, nor should our efforts be. Together, we need to ensure inclusion and equity, to empower and enable the contributions of those who experienced the dream of coming to Israel, and their children.