The saga of Ethiopian Jewish integration

Leaders of Beta Israel tell of the joy, pain and prospects of their journey home.

Ethiopian women 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Ruppin Academic Center)
Ethiopian women 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Ruppin Academic Center)
Recently, the State of Israel paid tribute to some 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who perished on their way to Israel in the first large wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel in 1983-84. Approximately 12,000 Jews from the Beta Israel community had set off by foot from the remote Gondar region, where they had lived as a distinct Jewish community for more than 2,000 years. The perils they faced on the exhausting threemonth walk to Israel were too numerous and horrific to recall. This included hunger, thirst, attacks by bandits and wild animals, and living in refugee camps with rampant disease and malnutrition. One-third of their number died along the way.
For the survivors, painful memories of those arduous times were quickly buried and never really dealt with, producing an endless stream of new problems when these newcomers began the process of integrating into a society that did not understand the grueling trials they had just experienced.
As these new Ethiopian immigrants began settling in Israel, local aid agencies focused on providing them with food, shelter and clothing – the basics of life. Yet the trauma of their long and arduous journey remained hidden inside – an unseen root that hindered their ability to adjust to their new, modern surroundings.
Such were the traumatic beginnings of the Ethiopian Jewish community’s return to Eretz Israel – a dream they had carried for centuries, which met with a harsh reality along the way.
The Israeli government had officially accepted the Beta Israel as Jews in 1975 for the purpose of the Law of Return but required that they undergo a pro forma Jewish conversion process. Their return seemed inevitable, but it soon became an urgent matter as civil war and famine engulfed Ethiopia.
When that first mass wave of returnees exacted a heavy toll, Israel launched rescue efforts dubbed “Operation Moses” in 1984 and then the larger 1991 emergency airlift known as “Operation Solomon,” which brought nearly 15,000 Ethiopians Jews to Israel in just one weekend. The latter involved an unprecedented and secret 36-hour flight plan carried out by 34 El Al planes whose seats had been removed to accommodate more passengers. Several children were born on the way. Some of the passengers were so unused to the modern surroundings, they even lit cooking fires aboard the planes.
As the final line of planes tipped their wings over Jerusalem and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on a quiet Shabbat afternoon 19 years ago, word began to spread of the new arrivals, and Israelis rejoiced at their coming.
However, their assimilation into Israeli society has proven more difficult than imagined. Most members of the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community of more than 120,000 people now reside in Israel. Their absorption into Israel has presented many unique challenges. From the outset, workers from the absorptions centers did not understand that they should have been helping the Ethiopians adjust to more than just a modern world of sinks, toilets, elevators and paying bills on time. Many Ethiopians Jews faced the shock of trying to transition from living in a close-knit rural community that shared everything to an increasingly urbanized setting where family life often becomes fractured.
Today, some 70 percent of Ethiopian Jews in Israel live below the poverty line. The rate of suicide attempts is significantly higher within the Ethiopian community than in Israeli society overall. Many youngsters end up dropping out of school and are eventually placed in detention centers. Most Ethiopian Jews still struggle to adjust to Israel and feel greatly discriminated against by fellow Israelis.
The Israeli media has contributed to the negative portrayals of Ethiopian immigrants, according to a study by the University of Haifa conducted by Germaw Mengistu. The study, based on newspapers surveyed between 1970 and 2004, showed that media reports on cultural aspects of the Ethiopian community have been mostly negative, for the most part focusing on immigrants’ ignorance of basic technological skills compared to immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were presented as “belonging.”
“When the media continuously portrays immigrants in a negative light and attaches stereotypes to them, the public, whose main source of information is the media, begins to internalize these stereotypes,” Mengistu explained to The Christian Edition.
The results of another poll released in January revealed that a majority (52%) of Israelis blame immigrants from former the Soviet Union and Ethiopia for the rise in crime.
The Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption’s chief researcher, Ze’ev Khanin, believes the results indicate that Israelis are not necessarily xenophobic but are prejudiced.
Still, some great strides have been made, and more and more Ethiopian Jews are rising above the obstacles and rejection to become successful and respected members of Israeli society.
Recently, The Christian Edition surveyed a number of community leaders to learn of their accomplishments and how they are now helping others to succeed as well. They are overcoming racism and becoming leaders who break through the walls of misconceptions and ignorance that had held others back. They are not forcing acceptance but are reshaping attitudes and beliefs about the Ethiopian people so that the walls come down naturally. Together, they are rewriting the story of Ethiopian Jewry’s difficult return home to Israel.
DAVID YASO was 14 when he left Ethiopia via Sudan to reach Israel. He remembers the harsh conditions that Ethiopians had to face for endless days in refugee camps before the Operation Moses rescue operation airlifted them into Israel. But dire circumstances did not hold him back. Yaso has been working as the director of the Ethiopian Department at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption since 2002.
“This office is special because it is the only government office geared toward Ethiopians,” he told The Christian Edition.
Since 1992, his department has been dealing with all areas of immigration, education, employment and housing — essentially trying to provide everything necessary to help Ethiopian Jews fit into society from the moment they arrive.
“New Ethiopian immigrants come from primitive villages and must learn how to do everything we consider simple. The process is hard but is successful,” Yaso explained.
“The biggest challenge we face is that we have been given a budget to integrate, but Israeli society still does not accept them even after a new immigrant has received some education,” Yaso added. “Besides that, for the individual the biggest challenge is getting a job. But once they get their foot in the door, they prove to be efficient workers.”
Yaso notes three main positives in his dealings with new immigrants from Ethiopia: 1) the sheer success of physically journeying and arriving in Israel; 2) the funds for living expenses provided by the government for these immigrants who came with nothing; 3) the ability to receive higher education for free.
ASHER RAHAMIM had an easy absorption process when he arrived in Israel as a teen, but he has dedicated his life to helping other Ethiopians work through the hardships most face upon coming here. Today, he is the coordinator of services for the Ethiopian community at the Center for Psychotrauma at Herzog Hospital.
“In the process of integration, new immigrants don’t always get what they need in terms of psychological healing and help. The basic missing piece is that they need to know and recognize the trauma they’ve been through,” Rahamim explained.
With so many Ethiopians living below the poverty line, psychological healing “usually gets forgotten, as daily needs are continually pressing. The first thing a person needs is to eat and drink, so that is obviously the focus, and inner healing is secondary,” he added.
However, after 26 years in Israel, Rahamim acknowledged that the proper authorities are now more aware of the unique problems and the best solutions for Ethiopian olim. Much of this is thanks to Dr. Daniel Brom, head of the psychotherapy unit at Herzog, who helped found a trauma unit especially for the Ethiopian newcomers. His workshops showed that their higher suicide rate was a result of not dealing with trauma, stress, cultural conflict, socioeconomic differences and not feeling accepted in Israeli society.
Rahamim said, “For example, just the perilous journey to Israel through Sudan alone brought many unspoken traumatic issues to the new immigrant. It is believed that 4,000 died in Sudan, and many living in the refugee camps there witnessed countless burials, [and] experienced starvation and disease.”
Rahamim uses his education, training and own cultural knowledge to create a safe place for Ethiopian patients to deal with private emotions. The trauma center team documents their experience(s) via video because they believe that therapeutic video documentation can help the patient heal.
“When they tell the journey, the whole atmosphere changes,” he said. “Documentary [video] enables them to see the process they’ve been through and essentially closes the circle.”
EDDIE SAHALO is an Ethiopian Jewish student who immigrated with his family in 1990 at age 10. He was an excellent athlete, ranked as the seventh-best runner in the world for 400 and 800 meters. However, he couldn’t finish sports training professionally because of health issues, so he finished regular high school and then joined the army.
Today, he is a promising student at the Ruppin Academic Center, a prominent college in Israel that has an innovative program for Ethiopians. Within the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration, Ethiopian students can participate in a leadership program that offers a full scholarship and an extensive support network to earn a BA in business administration and professional training in community volunteering.
“Though I cannot say I personally have the same problems because I have a very supportive and warm family that loves me, still I am aware of what the community is going through,” Eddie said.
He started his academic studies at the Wingate Institute, a prestigious national sports school near Netanya, but he had a dream to study business administration. But a barrier was in the way – the psychometric exam. Many Ethiopian students find it difficult to pass this entrance exam for university studies because the test is based on Israeli cultural standards, putting them at a disadvantage.
Eddie has one more year in the program, but he has already opened his own business with his brother. And twice he has received the President’s Award for volunteering and starting new volunteer initiatives.
PNINA FALEGO-GADAI journeyed from Ethiopia to Israel with her mother and sister as a very young girl, so she cannot recall the difficulties of that long trek in 1984. But she does remember the challenges she faced growing up in Israel, such as being the only Ethiopian student in her school.
Falego-Gadai is now the director of the Hillel chapter at Tel Aviv University, making her the first Ethiopian Jew to head one of the 500 centers of the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Her job is to direct and supervise Jewish cultural and educational activities at the university.
Falego-Gadai sees three main challenges to fighting ignorance. First, “Ignorance starts in education,” she insists. “If Ethiopians don’t see their own face everywhere, how will they know which sector of work is possible to pursue?” For example, she notes that there are only 90 Ethiopian teachers in all of Israel.
“The sense is that we don’t exist, except in the news and then it’s negative. And it’s sensational,” she adds. “We’re not good with sharing and don’t talk about [the positive things that] happen in the community – we’re very quiet. We need to give more respect to ourselves first, by sharing our real stories.”
The second challenge she sees is a lack of motivation and self-respect. “The gap between parents and the next generation is huge. Kids from three to 12 can be integrated very well, but with parents who are above age 40, it’s too late because learning a new language is difficult and they tend to only know agricultural or cleaning skills.”
Finally, she says there is a disconnect between mainstream Jewish community life today that follows evolving rabbinical rulings and the Beta Israel from Ethiopia who adhere to a strict observance of biblical laws from several millennia ago.
“Are we Jewish?” she asks rhetorically. “According to Israeli standards, the question is not resolved.”
DANNY ADMASU was 10 when he immigrated to Israel in 1984 through Sudan. Today he is the executive director of the International Association of Ethiopian Jews. Admasu chose not to focus on his absorption process because he sees it as the smallest of challenges when compared to others. But his integration experience became a catalyst to helping others integrate successfully.
He believes the IAEJ is in a good position to help Ethiopian Jews because it it is not government funded, “so we can really focus on the problems. We are trying to give tools to the community so they handle as a group what their rights are as citizens.”
IAEJ successfully campaigned for the annual Sigd festival to become an official national holiday in Israel in 2008. Sigd, which refers to prostrating oneself, is the day on the Ethiopian Jewish religious calendar when the community fasts to commemorate the nation’s acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But it also marks a return of the community to the homeland with hopes of rebuilding the Temple.
The greatest disappointment Admasu sees is Israel’s “recognizing the Ethiopian community as part of society but, at the same time, seeing that there are special needs for someone integrating from that place to here. For the bureaucrats, it’s very difficult for them to understand because on one hand we are asking for equal opportunity, and on the other hand we are asking for help.”
He then lists his greatest joys. “When you see Ethiopian Knesset members on Channel One TV; that you can change the law for the Sigd holiday; to see the institute for Ethiopians who died in Sudan set up on Mount Herzl; when you see more Ethiopian organizations trying to effect change; when I see the Ethiopian community represented in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
He says that “As human beings, we always want more and more, but in 30 years from the place we come from, to learn another language, in short, to overcome – the most important things haven’t been done, but there is a hope that if you work hard, you can do it.”
In terms of the future, Admasu hopes for “more legal action against racism and discrimination” so that people do not get refused a job because of color. He also wants his people “to be a part of society and be able to say what they really feel – not what sounds good, not what is expected.”
“I am first a human being, then a Jew, then a Jew who came from Ethiopia, and then Israeli. Israel cannot be my first identity because of my history experience,” Admasu said. “Don’t put me where you want me to be; I choose my identity.”