We've found each other - now what?

'Westerners tell me that adjusting to life in Israel is difficult for everyone. They just don't get it.'

ethiop 298  (photo credit: )
ethiop 298
(photo credit: )
While the immigration process for Ethiopian Jews is a dreadful experience, for immigrants from Europe and America it is relatively smooth. For Westerners the transition is like moving from one room to another in the same house. Western olim often first visit Israel to make sure they really want to make the move. They come, see, go back and decide whether aliya is really for them. Ethiopians come with no knowledge of the country. Westerners come as tourists or students, and become acclimatized to Israeli history, social mores and geography. There are one-year overseas programs at the universities; there's birthright israel, and so on. When I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem I met many foreign students. I asked them if they had come for good. They often told me they were here to study and expected to go back when they finished their studies. One would tell me, "I am an overseas student. I have come for one year." Another: "I have come for two years." They don't make aliya on the spur of the moment. Immigration for them is not a necessity; it is a luxury. Even after immigration, if they find it too difficult to stay, they can go back. There are relatives in their country of birth. The umbilical cord is not completely broken. OUR IMMIGRATION is entirely different. First of all, immigration for us is a one-way ticket. There is no going back, because there is nowhere to go. When we immigrated we totally uprooted ourselves from our villages. We came to start a new life from scratch, which means undergoing a painful process of rebirth. There is no continuity in our life. Moreover, we came to Israel empty-handed. The only property we had was our plot of land, our cows, and our oxen. I know many people who just left everything and trekked to the Sudan because there was no time to sell their domestic animals, and many Ethiopians were eagerly waiting to take the property of the Beta-Israel. To be left behind was to be weak, hence to be vulnerable to attack by marauding bandits. It was this sudden departure, this sudden flight - often under the cover of darkness - that created a resemblance between the Ethiopian exodus and the biblical exodus. It was redemptive in nature - desire and fulfillment. Other immigrants ask me if we face difficulties as new olim, and I tell them that our lives here are more difficult compared to other immigrants. Their response is that making aliya isn't easy even if you come from the West. But what these people miss is that their difficulties are temporary and transitory. Their children will be completely absorbed and become Israelis. It is just a matter of time. Our problems are not being healed by time. FIRST OF ALL, we are black and therefore an anomaly in a largely white environment. We are different in culture. These things make us conspicuous, and hence the focus of attention from everyone. The slightest mistake we make is exaggerated. Our difference deprives us of the right to be absorbed into society and become one with it. Last year the Israeli media talked about the 30th anniversary of the start of Ethiopian aliya. But soon their interest faded. Israelis still see us as new immigrants, and the authorities continue to use our olim to mobilize money from Diaspora Jews. Secondly, many of us were uneducated when we arrived - a major impediment to adjustment and absorption. We came with no knowledge of how things work in Israel. In Ethiopia, the only white people we encountered were tourists and researchers (Jewish and non-Jewish) who visited us in our villages for their own business and contacted us through interpreters. Apart from the few educated Ethiopians, the community's understanding of the Holy Land was somewhat idealized. Many of us thought life in the Promised Land was ancient, perhaps similar to that of our life in villages. Ignorance, lack of foreknowledge about modern Israel, created high, unrealistic expectations. The worst thing that can happen to a community is to come with high expectations and have them crushed. We found the land of milk and honey so different from the picture the Torah gave us. Now this mismatch of fantasy with reality has caused trauma and shock. The ongoing absorption process is as difficult and painful as our original trek to Sudan on the way here. IN ADDITION to all this, the reaction of the Israeli population toward the Ethiopian olim has become increasingly less than welcoming. When the first mass immigrants arrived from the Sudan and later from Addis Ababa, Israelis were euphoric and everyone volunteered to help. Indeed, they did help. Israelis gave clothes and many volunteered to serve as guides. But that euphoria, that enthusiasm, was short-lived. Now many Israelis don't want to live with us as neighbors, and openly show their displeasure in various ways. They are reluctant to send their children to schools where there is a concentration of Ethiopian children. When we move into their neighborhoods many Israelis sell their houses and quietly leave. Some city officials and mayors openly say they have enough Ethiopians and don't need any more. You can imagine how humiliating and embarrassing such proclamations are. Israelis must understand this reality: No matter how different we are to them, no matter how uneducated and dirty we may be, we have come to stay. We have come to live in this country forever. This land is ours as much as it is theirs. They have to accept this fact and live with it. If they don't want to live with us, that's their problem. Our dream is fulfilled. WE HAVE come to the land. The best way would be to accept us, with our differences, and live with us in harmony. In this age of multiculturalism, diversity is not something to be dreaded. It should be welcomed. It enriches the overall culture. And you should know this too: Until the second half of the 19th century, when European Christian missionaries, and later Jews, made contact with us, we did not know there were other Jews in the world. We thought we were the only Jews. In principle, we waited eagerly for centuries to come to the Land of Israel, not to the people of Israel. Now that we have found each other let us coexist peacefully, respecting and tolerating our differences. The writer is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.