The Road to Zion

The personal story of an Israeli scholar born in Ethiopia.

Shlomo Mehari with his wife and child, will travel to the US on a Fulbright scholarship and work as a researcher under Nobel laureate Prof. Shuji Nakamura (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shlomo Mehari with his wife and child, will travel to the US on a Fulbright scholarship and work as a researcher under Nobel laureate Prof. Shuji Nakamura
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ever since its great waves of aliya, the Ethiopian community in Israel has gone through a lot.
It is not easy transferring a whole tradition, culture and identity, and transplanting it into another soil, even if it is “holy soil.” There has been turmoil that is still very much felt in the community, expressed at times in protests against what Ethiopians see as excessive police violence, and discrimination in society in general.
That’s why the success story of Ethiopia- born Shlomo Mehari, a 35-year-old soon-to-be doctor specializing in electrical engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, represents such a beacon of hope.
In October, Mehari, his wife and baby daughter will be on their way to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he will become a researcher on Nobel laureate Prof. Shuji Nakamura’s team.
Nakamura won the coveted prize for discovering a way to manufacture the so-called “blue LED,” a technology that allows creation of light with a much higher degree of energy utilization. A Fulbright scholar, Mehari will be receiving support from one of the most prestigious research grant foundations in the world, to help the young family in the first year of their American adventure.
“The decision to go on to a post-doctorate position was not an obvious one to make, and it was settled comparatively late,” says Mehari. “The main issue is the funding, because going to places like that [the US] from the economic aspect, is a very difficult thing to do. Especially if you have a family. With all the aspiration to succeed and get ahead, there are also practical considerations, especially when somebody doesn’t have economic backing,” he explains.
And indeed, Mehari’s impressive achievements derived from a modest beginning. He was born in the politically unstable Ethiopia of 1981 in Gondar. In 1974, Ethiopia saw its communist revolution that brought the end of the Solomonic dynasty that had ruled in the country since the 13th century.
Mehari’s mother and father were an unusual match. In Ethiopia it was common practice to decide on a spouse for a child – sometimes as young as 10 – without ever asking his or her opinion. His mother had escaped such an arranged marriage attempt, running away from her village to Gondar, the biggest city around, where she met her future husband. Unfortunately, not long after the couple’s marriage and shortly after Shlomo was born, the father had to leave the house, due to constant threats on the father’s life by the authorities.
“There was no notice, it happened in one ‘boom.’ He just disappeared one day without telling anyone, because it was too dangerous.” Even Mehari’s mother didn’t know where her husband was heading.
The father was an active dissident against the ruling government and also took part in efforts to sneak Ethiopian Jewish families through Sudan to Israel in multiple missions that started in the 1970s and continued through the ‘80s. This chapter in Israeli and Zionist history is now taught and accepted as one of the most exciting and courageous efforts the State of Israel has undertaken.
When it became apparent that Mehari’s father was no longer safe in the country, he moved to the United States with help from Israel and from the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, which also supported his activity in Ethiopia and Sudan. He eventually remarried.
Mehari’s mother was left alone with her two children in a country that was growing increasingly violent around them. That is why, not long after the father left, the remaining family, including the grandparents, joined in the great stream of people that led many to refugee camps in Sudan. They embarked on the journey to the neighboring country on foot – a difficult and dangerous experience that Mehari says his mother does not speak of to this day.
In Sudan, Mehari recalls, “the conditions were very harsh. One had to survive from day to day. We had to conceal our Jewish identity, especially because it was Sudan, a Muslim country.” Hostility against Jews existed among Christian Ethiopians as well. “Somebody in Gondar once called my mother a budah, which means cannibal, someone who is a complete savage; it is a very serious insult.”
The family had to survive in Sudan for nine more months before they could board the plane that brought them to Israel in 1984. At first, the family was put up in an absorption center in Kfar Saba – a place designated for an “easy landing” for people making aliya. This was an all-Ethiopian center that provided housing and help for the families.
“It was not a bad thing,” Mehari says, referring to the fact that the community was seemingly separated from the rest of society at the beginning.
“The importance of the centers is to get to know the place slowly – the most basic things; how to shop, how to take a bus, how to look for a job, all the little things that we take for granted. For somebody who came from there [Ethiopia] it is a crazy change of mind-set.”
After a short while, the family moved to Safed, where they spent the next five years. In 1989 they finally settled down in their journey’s last destination, Haifa.
“It was a practical decision,” Mehari says, explaining that his mother’s sister was living there, and they wanted to be closer to each other.
For Mehari, this decision opened up new doors and opportunities. Before coming to Haifa, the two children, Mehari and his sister, were being brought up in a religious milieu, both going to a religious school. “Like most Ethiopians,” says Mehari, “my mother is a traditional woman till this day.”
In Haifa, a much more secular city in its spirit and atmosphere than Safed, this changed immediately: “This is my most memorable experience – to come from Safed to Haifa and encounter all those secular people.”
BECAUSE OF the proximity to their new home, his mother chose to send them to a secular school, where, gradually but quickly enough, the children took in the general ambience, leaving the kippa and prayers behind.
By the time his mother decided that the children should go to a religious school after all, she had to face the children’s refusal to move again, eventually giving in to their wishes and letting them stay where they were.
The elementary school was populated mostly by children who were born in Israel with origins in Arab lands, Mehari says, and after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were many children from there as well. His high school was also a “mixed” school, with children from various Jewish social circles.
“I assume they tried to create some sort of a melting pot there,” he says, “and it worked, because now that I think about it, there was a feeling there that everyone was together.”
This was the first time Mehari felt that he belonged. “I saw that there was everything of everywhere. Ethiopians from my neighborhood, children of the ma’barot [immigrant absorption camps from the 1950s], children of the moshavim… It was a kind of greenhouse.”
It was there that he also first learned how to conduct himself as a student.
Mehari says there were many opportunities along the way to quit the path of academic studies that he chose. The army, for example, offers one possible “way out” (especially for someone from a family with modest means), through professional training in one of its many technical fields.
“It’s very tempting,” Mehari explains, “with all the airplanes and gadgets that the army shows these 18-year-old boys just before their recruitment.” But Mehari chose not to give in to this temptation.
Yisrael Cohen, his high-school teacher, was the one to tell him that he should give himself time to develop and allow things to unfold, recommending that he take the “regular” path of being a soldier and decide what exactly he would like to do only later.
“Now, in retrospect, I appreciate this advice very much. He was a very respected man in the school.”
Mehari started his service in the air force, and went on to become an officer in a completely different field.
“I wanted to get away a bit from the technical stuff that I was engaged in all the time,” so he moved to human resources, where he concluded his service as a lieutenant.
After that he began the long academic path that brought him to where he is today.
All this time, his father was away, living in the US – but this family story has a happier ending than one might have expected.
According to Mehari, his mother never stopped loving his father and they maintained a connection through the years. Eventually, following his father’s choice to move to Israel after things did not work out with his wife in the US, Mehari’s parents decided, last year, to get back together again.
Mehari, who tries to keep a very serious attitude throughout most of our conversation, cannot hide his obvious excitement over this recent turn of events.
It seems that more good is yet to be expected from both the family and from the young and promising researcher, who hopes to continue doing interesting things professionally, raising his daughter, and enjoying what life has to offer.
Fulbright celebrates 60 years of success in Israel
US AMBASSADOR to Israel Dan Shapiro and Executive- Director of Fulbright Israel Dr. Anat Lapidot.US AMBASSADOR to Israel Dan Shapiro and Executive- Director of Fulbright Israel Dr. Anat Lapidot.
Shlomo Mehari is one of many scholars who enjoy the sponsorship and support of the Fulbright Foundation, which is marking its 60th year of activity in Israel this year.
The international foundation was established 10 years earlier than its Israeli branch – in 1946, not long after the conclusion of World War II. “Senator William Fulbright was a big believer that cross-cultural exchanges could help promote understanding, tolerance and acceptance and exactly the kind of attitudes that might help prevent future wars,” said American Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last month at the Fulbright’s 60th anniversary celebrations at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
The executive director of Fulbright Israel, Dr. Anat Lapidot, told the Post that the program was founded in the days of the Cold War and that “establishing a network of education and knowledge […] was one of the measures employed by the American government‘s foreign policy.”
In some countries, she goes on to explain, the foundation has established a binational commission, meaning that the host country is a full partner in any decision, in policies and of course in funding. This is also the case with Israel: “Around half the money comes from [Israeli] government ministries.
But it’s not just the money, the state takes part in decision-making; we have a representative of the Council for Higher Education of Israel and two representatives of the Foreign Affairs Ministry,” Lapidot said.
Apparently, both parties – Israel and the US – have an interest in investing in the program.
“We view this as one of many platforms that we have for US-Israel exchanges,” said Ambassador Shapiro. “If you think about the opportunities it creates when scholars or researchers go to American universities, they’re not only going to meet Americans, they’re going to meet people from the wider world who are also coming to the great universities of the United States. I have no doubt that it’s helping Israel build connections into other parts of the world, and maybe breaking down some barriers as well.”