Right of Reply: Give Ethiopian Jewry a chance to flourish

With no tradition of political involvement, Ethiopians have not been able to push their agenda into the national spotlight.

In a well-meaning Jerusalem Post editorial entitled "'Rescuing' Ethiopian Jews" published on August 14, the writer made many cogent points but also several mistaken assumptions. The story of the aliya [immigration] of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel is indeed different from that of the aliyas of other Jewish groups. But the writer claims that "the Ethiopians had no mythical heroes to offer us." It is not that there were no mythical heroes, it is merely that the Israeli society has showed no interest in them. This ignorance persists to this day, but it is an ignorance that can easily be made right by incorporating our Ethiopian Jewish heroes into mainstream Israeli history and education. There is not an Ethiopian in Israel older than 20 who does not know the name of Yona Bogale, the first leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community. He was born in 1908 in a village called Wolleka and in the 1920s was sent by Jacques Faitlovitch, an early champion of the Ethiopian Jews, to study abroad. Bogale lived in Mandatory Palestine and Europe. He returned to his country to work in the Ethiopian Ministry of Education and came back to Israel in 1979. That same year he gave a rousing speech to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities of North America, asking for assistance in saving his people - then living under communist rule - from famine and war. In Rehovot, there is a school named after him and he is widely considered "the Ethiopian Herzl." He died in 1987 and is buried in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery. His brother Metuku makes the point that this history is largely overlooked: "I want the history of Ethiopian Jewry to be added to every textbook. We have a glorious history, and society would do well to learn of it in order to give it the honor and respect that it merits." THE MAIN problem of the Ethiopian community is that our first decade here was spent struggling for the necessities of everyday life. We had no tradition of political involvement, coming from a rural country which had a king until 1976. Thus, unlike the Soviet community, the Ethiopians have not been able to push their agenda into the national spotlight. Despite there being as many Ethiopians as there are Druse in the country, we are far less represented in the Knesset. The Ethiopian community has also always struggled between a desire to assimilate, a feeling that Israeli culture is superior to our own, and a desire to maintain our traditions. Consider simply the question of language; how many young Ethiopians today speak Amharic? IN THE Jerusalem Post editorial, the writer claimed that Israel felt "obliged" to help its "unfortunate brethren." In fact, the Israeli government showed no interest in our community until Yitzhak Rabin took up the issue in the 1970s. It was only in 1973 that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then chief Sephardi rabbi, ruled that we were Jewish and should be brought to Israel. Ashkenazi chief rabbi Shlomo Goren followed with a ruling of his own in our favor soon thereafter. It was the personal intervention of Menachem Begin - who told his Mossad chief, "Bring them to me" - that initiated the saving of the Ethiopian Jews and the subsequent Operation Moses in 1984. The author speaks of there being no racism when a society fears a "tipping point" by enrolling too many Ethiopians. Fear of such a tipping point is just that: racism. The main problem facing Ethiopian Jews, especially the poverty-stricken immigrants who have come here in recent years, is the haphazard policies and the terrible housing conditions. There is no one policy with regards to our community, thus each municipality makes up its own. Local councils rarely consult the Ethiopians themselves to see what they feel is best for them and what they need. The attitude is "we know what is best for you." Abandoned in places of high crime and no prospects, like Lod and Ramle, people then point to the Ethiopians and say, "They are crime-ridden" or "They are drunks" or "They commit suicide and kill their wives." But the environment they are dumped in has only aggravated the situation. The most successful members of the community have fled such places like the plague. THERE IS also an ongoing debate within the community about the aliya of the Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity beginning in the 19th century and who some say are not Jewish. Others seek to return them to the fold. The author of the editorial claims that these are people with "family connections" and "dubious ties to Jewish civilization." While this may be the case with a few intermarried couples, in fact the Falash Mura come from separate families and villages that have a very real connection but who, like the Marranos of Spain, became Christians. Ethiopian Jewry is part of the unique fabric that makes up the beauty and greatness of Israeli society and given the right circumstances, it too will flourish in this country and contribute greatly to it. The writer arrived in Israel in 1984 with Operation Moses and is involved in numerous social change organizations on behalf of the Ethiopian community