“We boarded a big bird with steel wings. Mother cried and father was silent. He knew that everything was about to change. Goodbye to you Africa; everything erased in one day.”
— from “Memories of Africa,” on the CD “Shlomo Gronich and the Sheba Choir”
By Ruth Mason
As Israel enters its second 50 years, one sees elegant black faces almost everywhere in the country: in shopping malls and universities, in the army and in playgrounds. There is an Ethiopian member of Knesset, a couple of fashion models, dozens of teachers and municipal advisers in every city. More than 100 Ethiopian organizations serve and lobby for the 60,000-member community, 6,000 of whom were born in Israel. And a Brookdale Institute study found that one-third of Ethiopian youth are doing well to outstanding.
Despite these success stories, Ethiopian Jews and those who work with them agree that the community as a whole is not doing well. Some say the government’s good intentions backfired. Others say that grievous mistakes were made, especially in education.
“On the whole, Ethiopian Jews are in the lower echelons of Israeli society, both economically and educationally,” says Dr. Shalva Weil, an anthropologist with the National Council for Jewish Women’s Center for Innovation in Education who has established teacher-training courses and student-enrichment centers for Ethiopian Jews.
Shula Mola, 25, educational projects coordinator for the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, describes two extremes of Ethiopian Jewish society. “On the top, you have people with good jobs who, with a lot of effort, managed to succeed. On the bottom, you have society’s dropouts, those who sleep in abandoned cars and bus stations, who are involved with drugs and crime and who have no contact with their families. They feel cut off, isolated, confused about their identities. Every one of us has an uncle or a cousin or a brother in this situation — and this group is growing.”
Many Ethiopians say that they feel like outsiders in Israel. Says Weil: “Those over 40 are certainly not being integrated into Israeli society. The younger people also move largely in Ethiopia circles.” Less than 5 percent marry other Israelis.
“Employment is a very big problem. By and large, Ethiopians came with no marketable skills,” says Shoshana Ben Dor, an anthropologist who directs the Israel office of the North American Coalitions on Ethiopian Jews. “Many Ethiopians don’t want to work. This has been one of the prices of aliyah. The work ethic was very strong in Ethiopia.”
The government gave Ethiopians relatively large grants to buy apartments, but even these weren’t enough to buy a decent home in a good neighborhood.
“The veteran population in marginal neighborhoods had often been waiting for years to get out, but they didn’t have the money. Suddenly came these Ethiopians immigrants with $110,000, and the veterans saw it as their chance,” says Ben Dor. “Whole neighborhoods moved out, and we ended up with Ethiopian ghettoes.”
Says Mola: “We’re at the bottom of society. It’s not temporary anymore. Many of us have come to accept this position.”
A painful generation gap also has developed. In Ethiopia, children were raised to honor their parents. Here, parents feel they have lost their role as their children’s educators. In the 1980s and, to a large extent, today, almost all Ethiopian youths were sent to youth aliyah boarding schools with Israel’s toughest teens. Most were tracked in vocational programs in classes that were primarily black.
Ethiopian Jews take their Torah-based religion seriously, and their standing was further eroded by what their children learned in state religious schools.
“In school, I got the message that our way was not good; worse than that, that we sinned,” says Mola, who arrived at age 12. “I was ashamed to say that in Ethiopia, we sacrificed on Passover or that my mother left the house for a week when she menstruated. To white Israelis, these things are forbidden. There were times I wouldn’t eat at home, because at school I was taught we weren’t kosher enough.”
Says Ben Dor: “There wasn’t, and still isn’t, tolerance for the legitimacy of different Jewish practices in Israel. The kes, or priest, who was the sole religious authority in Ethiopia, has no role in Israel” — another painful blow to the community.
Mola believes that low expectations and a tendency by educators to underestimate Ethiopians’ potential largely explains the disappointments.
“The same power that brought us to the Sudan, that great belief in ourselves that encouraged a barefoot girl to walk for miles on thorns, where did that strength come from?” Mola says. “That courage and faith and persistence is wonderful ground for studies — but it wasn’t seen.”
The vast majority of Ethiopians finish high school without passing the matriculation exams, a prerequisite for any form of higher education. In what has been called a “crime against Ethiopians,” many were sent to classes for retarded or severely learning-disabled children. Dr. Gadi Ben Ezer, formerly in charge of Ethiopian affairs for the Education Ministry, told the Jerusalem Post, “The life of every child who unnecessarily enters such a framework is destroyed.” Another official said the way Ethiopians were being educated “will cause heartache for generations.”
Most experts believe Israel to be a far less racist society than the United States, but prejudices remain. “Somewhere in the backs of their minds, most Israelis think, ‘These Ethiopians are very nice, some are very good looking, but it’s enough for them to be car mechanics or baby sitters,” says Mola. “I prefer to believe this is ignorance and not racism.”
According to Mola, many of the problems can be solved through effort and education. “We need more pre-academic preparatory courses for entering universities; we must send Ethiopian children to better schools; Ethiopian parents should be prepared and guided to be involved in
their children’s education; teachers and principals must be educated in the ways of Ethiopians by Ethiopians themselves rather than Israeli anthropologists.”
Is there hope?
Chana Desi, an Ethiopian whose job it is to educate Ethiopian women about their roles and rights in a new society, believes there is, but she takes the long view. “The third generation,” she says “will be Israeli.”
The New Arrivals
Aschalew Ambaw, 28, one of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants just arriving in Israel, sits on the edge of a cot in a tiny room in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos. Speaking in the slow, deliberate Hebrew he learned in Addis Ababa while waiting to emigrate, Ambaw, wearing a crocheted yarmulke, says: “In Addis, we dreamed for 7 1/2 years of coming to Israel. Now, the Holy One Blessed-Be-He has brought us in peace to the Holy City, so we are very happy.”
Ambaw lived as a Christian in a village in the Gondar region, “but our parents told us about Jewish life, and we celebrated some holidays — but in secret because it was dangerous. The goyim hated us. It was hard to live the way of the Torah.”
Called Fales (or Falash) Mura by the press and by experts, these new immigrants are said to be descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing through the 1970s. In a land of famine and poverty, it was difficult for many to resist the food, clothing and education offered by zealous missionaries. The recent immigrants say they are simply Ethiopian Jews who did not practice Judaism, sort of secular Jews. But anthropologists doubt this possibility.
Some Ethiopian Jews in Israel see the new arrivals as opportunists who became Christian in order to live better lives and now want to become Jewish again for the same reason. “Things are so bad in Ethiopia and so much better here, people will do anything — anything — to get out,” said one observer who requested anonymity. “These people are not Jewish, and none of them will stay Jewish.”
“There are different points of view,” says Wasihun Melku, absorption manager on Givat Hamatos, a caravan site in Jerusalem to which 600 new immigrants are being brought. “Some say they are people who were once Jewish, they have Jewish blood, Jewish roots, and the question is how to bring them back to Judaism. Others say, it’s too late; they’ve been cut off from Judaism for too long. One thing I can tell you for sure: There are family ties between this group and the ones that came before.”
Says one young Ethiopian woman who works with the new group: “They heard about a homeland for the Jews, and they woke up.”
But another expert is more cynical: “I find it very interesting that very few of them woke up when the way to Israel was via a dangerous trek through the Sudan rather than safe flights out of Addis Ababa.”
Ruth Mason, formerly of Los Angeles, writes from Jerusalem.