Every Good Intention

Israel has brought in tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, but the going, especially over the past two decades, has been undeniably rough.

Ethiopian immigrants521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopian immigrants521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ONE FRIDAY A LITTLE OVER 20 YEARS AGO, Israel, in great secrecy, began sending every available large aircraft it had – from stripped-down blue-and-white El Al jumbo jets to camouflaged air force Hercules cargo planes – over 1,600 miles southward to Addis Ababa, capital of civil war-wracked Ethiopia. Rebels of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) were at the city’s gates and the largely reviled Marxist junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam was about to be toppled.
But Israel had its eyes on the more than 14,300 civilians crammed into Addis Ababa in buildings and yards overseen by the Jewish Agency and other groups. These were the remnants of a people called Beta Israel, believed by many to be descendants of the lost Tribe of Dan and recognized by Israel in 1975 as eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.
Individual members of the community had been trickling back to Zion since well before the establishment of the Jewish state. There was a surge in immigration due to civil war and famine in the early 1980s, at the height of which, in late 1984, Israel organized a top-secret rescue operation known as Operation Moses, which required an all-too-often deadly trek north into Sudan before a flight to Tel Aviv, sometimes via Europe. But barely six weeks into that rescue, Sudan slammed the door after word of the airlift leaked.
But the Jewish Agency and other groups working with Ethiopian Jews quietly began bringing most of the remainder of the Beta Israel to Addis Ababa in preparation for the day when the doors would reopen. And by the end of the 1980s they did.
Mengistu’s Soviet backers were no longer around to help him dig in against the advancing EPRDF, and, like so many others looking for help from the US, he believed that the road to Washington ran through Jerusalem.
But by late May of 1991, as rebel forces reached Ethiopia’s capital, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir felt that Israel had to make an all-out move.
In just 36 hours, over the 24th and 25th of May, those Israeli 747s, C-130s and any other plane that could be thrown into the mix brought every last one of those waiting Beta Israel home.
The 1,122 individuals loaded into a single jumbo jet made the Guinness Book of World Records. But much more importantly, when the military censor finally allowed Israeli radio and television stations to begin broadcasting the news that the last of the planes was on its way, Israel’s veteran citizens were filled with a deep sense of pride and satisfaction: This is what it means to be Israeli, they told each other with sureness and clarity.
The wider population turned out en masse to donate clothes, toys and even furniture for the new Israelis. Collection points sprang up overnight, and immigrant advocacy groups, overburdened in their efforts to assist the concurrent flood of olim from the former Soviet Union, were now inundated with offers for help. Nowhere was there talk of the color of anyone’s skin.
But euphoria doesn’t last forever. Two decades later, figures gathered from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Knesset Research Center and other sources show that Ethiopian- Israelis, who today number about 120,000, are three times more likely to live in poverty than non-Ethiopian Jewish Israelis.
Among those of working age, twice as many are likely to be unemployed.
Juvenile delinquency is as much as four times higher among Ethiopian-Israeli youth than it is among the country’s Jewish youth in general. While the proportion of Ethiopian youngsters who graduate high school has been rising, the 42.1 percent who successfully completed 12th grade in 2010 lagged significantly behind the 64.6 percent given high school diplomas among the general Jewish population. And spousal murders among Ethiopian immigrants, almost all at the hands of husbands, is generally seen as being far ahead of the figures for the general and Jewish populations.
Clearly, Ethiopian-Israelis have had and continue to have their problems, with government authorities and NGOs in the field often unable to meet their many needs. But as will be evident from this special section and its individual stories, there is also triumph and success, with Ethiopian-Israeli faces emerging in the fields of medicine and law, in academia and the media, in government and the military.
Clearly, there is opportunity. It’s just that the road leading to it is still too often cluttered with obstacles and barriers that needn’t be there. And with plans afoot to bring to Israel thousands of Falash Mura – non-Jewish Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors had generally been forced to convert to Christianity – this issue takes on an increasing urgency.