'Rescuing' Ethiopian Jews

For many Ethiopian olim, the transition from an agrarian milieu to a technologically advanced urban society hasn't been smooth.

ethiopians at ulpan 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
ethiopians at ulpan 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
The Soviet Jewry movement helped shape the Jewish identity and Zionist commitment of Diaspora activists, taking precedence over family, work and school. There were nighttime vigils and Sunday marches. London Jewish ladies chained themselves to the gates of the Russian Embassy. University students smuggled holy books to refuseniks. When the Soviet empire imploded in 1990 and the iron gates were opened, 600,000 Jews left for Israel. This was the single biggest wave of aliya in Zionist history. The country had to house the new arrivals. It had to provide work, retrain them, teach them Hebrew and support them in the difficult transition to a new way of life. Israelis were swiftly disabused of the notion that the immigrants would all be clones of the heroic figures they had come to "know" - Shpilberg, Zalmanson, Sharansky. Most were mere mortals. Some had intermarried; many were Jewishly illiterate. Soon enough, prejudice against the immigrants denigrated them as "welfare cheats, frauds, goyim and sluts." How much easier to "Save Soviet Jewry" than selflessly share our space and resources with them! And yet their absorption is largely a success story. BUT IF Russian-speaking Jews have suffered prejudice, Ethiopian Jews have fared much worse. The Ethiopians had no mythical heroes to offer us. Beta Israel were simply our unfortunate brethren and we felt obliged to help them - hence Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). Other Ethiopians, some with dubious ties to Jewish civilization but with family connections to those already here, continued to trickle in. The community is pressuring authorities to bring in other relatives left behind. Our country has been generous in providing for Ethiopian absorption; and selfless volunteers have taken up the cause of helping the Ethiopians acclimate. As a community-organizing effort to reconnect Ethiopian olim crammed into city apartment blocks with the land, an innovative group called Earth's Promise has been developing a string of garden plots in Beersheba, Hadera and elsewhere. The Jewish Agency sent three Ethiopian teens to Turkey last week to attend an international space camp run in partnership with NASA. But for many of the 100,000-plus Ethiopian olim, the transition from an agrarian milieu to a technologically advanced urban society has not been smooth. The older generation arrived here battered by dislocation, civil war and famine. Many households are dysfunctional, strained by changing gender roles and a yawning generation gap in which traditionalist parents feel alienated from their Hebrew-speaking offspring. Crime, truancy and domestic violence are all too prevalent. Formerly honored elders have been disempowered by Israel's jealous religious establishment. With their family and communal structures torn asunder, it is remarkable that so many Beta Israel have managed to thrive. Some of the younger generation blend in comfortably at fashionable Tel Aviv nightspots; others have been warmly embraced by the Orthodox. There are now Ethiopian broadcasters and an Ethiopian member of Knesset. This summer even saw the release of the first ever Israeli-Ethiopian film, Zrubavel, by director/screenwriter Shmuel Beru. Unfortunately, Ethiopians remain the victims of those who imagine themselves racially superior. Last week, for instance, an Egged driver allegedly refused to open the door of his bus to an Ethiopian college student; when she finally managed to board, he harangued her with slurs. It is, however, not racism when schools in socio-economically deprived areas decide to limit the enrollment of Ethiopian children, fearing that a demographic "tipping point" might force the exodus of other youngsters. In any case, Ethiopian students bunched together in poorly performing schools would be unlikely to achieve success. Many require intensive and costly remedial, educational and social services. One solution might be for schools in more affluent areas to set aside scholarships for Ethiopian students. Hebrew University Africa expert Steven Kaplan recently told The Los Angeles Times that "even after 30 years," he could not say with "any real confidence" that "we've turned the corner for the second and third generations of Ethiopians." Part of the reason is the immensity of the challenge; the other is Israelis' failure to internalize the idea that "rescuing" Ethiopian Jews - even more than "saving" Soviet Jews - is not a lightning operation, but a process that demands persistence.