Analyze This: The 'end' of Ethiopian aliya

Beta Israel's new struggles are just beginning.

Ethiopian olim 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ethiopian olim 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The announcement by the Jewish Agency that the age of Ethiopian aliya is now ended with the last official airlift of olim from that nation on Tuesday should not be taken too literally. Even the JA admits that among the some 9,000 remaining Falash Mura still hoping to immigrate, about 1,500 might yet qualify on grounds of family reunification or for other reasons. As to the rest, fierce debate still rages between the Ethiopian advocacy organizations and their political supporters calling for their transfer here, and opponents such as Housing Minister Zev Boim, who two weeks ago charged that American Jewish groups, "who knew how to bring other Jews to their communities [in the US] and spent a lot of money doing so, don't behave that way with Ethiopian Jews. So they shouldn't come here and tell us what to do and how to act on this issue." This issue will probably work itself out in the coming years with some kind of compromise over the last Falash Mura in Ethiopia, possibly with final passage of a Knesset bill designed to ease their immigration here. But if yesterday's flight wasn't exactly the end of the end of Ethiopian aliya, it could be described as the beginning of that end - and thus deserves some evaluation as to the larger meaning of this chapter in the history of Zionism, and its potential impact in the coming years on the Jewish state and beyond. In many ways, Operations Moses and Solomon, and the sporadic stream that over three decades has brought over 100,000 members of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel, fit comfortably into the same pattern as other classic "aliya of distress" movements, such as the one from post-war Europe, from Arab nations in the post-1948 period and from the former Soviet Union. Even the story of Ethiopian Jewry as the rescue of the near-mythical "lost tribe" of Beta Israel is not very different from that of the Yemenite Jews who came here in Operation Magic Carpet - except that this is likely the last of such heroic chapters of large-scale "rescue" aliya. What is exceptional, at least in the minds of much of the world (and many Israelis), is the racial aspect of this immigration. Israel has always been a multi-ethnic society yet was and is still portrayed by many - who perceive it largely through the prism of the white Ashkenazi Jews, who now barely make up half its population - as an ethnically exclusive national enclave. The Ethiopian aliya, and the pride and celebration that initially greeted its arrival, served as a stunning rejoinder to those who still parrot the ludicrous "Zionism is racism" line, often from countries which would probably never so willingly accept as new citizens such a large influx of black African immigrants. It is not being cynical to suggest that this is certainly one of the reasons that the Ethiopian aliya has been a particularly favorite cause among some liberal American-Jewish circles, including the current campaign for the remaining Falash Mura. Israel itself has noted and utilized this aspect of Beta Israel right from the start, and Ethiopian Israelis are, not surprisingly, frequently used in the capacity of good-will ambassadors abroad. But the overall picture is far from positive. Few immigrant groups have had to make such a sudden and wrenching adjustment as Ethiopian Jewry, whose traditional family and community structures collapsed in a completely alien environment. Yet just last month the State Comptroller's Office released a scathing report on the government's handling of its immigrant absorption. It found that some 65 percent of the community is currently on some kind of welfare assistance; that only as late as two years ago were social workers finally being given special training to deal with Ethiopian-Israeli clients; and that not nearly enough was being done to address the increasing drug and alcohol abuse among its younger generation. Some of this has to be ascribed to lingering racist attitudes among other Israelis, especially in certain segments of the population. Mostly, though, the fault lies with the all-too-typical bureaucratic ineptitude and neglect characteristic here in dealing with such major social welfare challenges. Whatever the reason, there is more at stake in Israel's handling of its relatively small Ethiopian immigrant community than many here realize. If the younger generation grows up feeling neglected, embittered and discriminated against then what was, and still should be, a source of Zionist pride and potential will instead turn into a tragic embarrassment - one that will definitely be noticed abroad by both Israel's supporters and detractors. If, conversely, the Ethiopian-Israelis can overcome these hardships with the proper assistance, and successfully integrate into the Israeli mainstream like other immigrant communities that preceded it, that achievement will provide a fitting conclusion to the initial chapter in the saga that officially ended this week - and open up promising new pages in both the story of Beta Israel as a people, and the State of Israel as their new homeland. [email protected]