Ethiopian Jews in Israel


They came such a short distance, except that in the 1980s many did it on foot and 4,000 died en route. They trace their Jewishness to the Biblical era, but only the Prophet Elijah knows for sure. They also invoke the Sartre formula, claiming Jewishness by virtue of having been abused in Exile. Now they challenge Israel to honor its absorption ethos.

The euphoria of the great 1991 airlift has given way to a modified 1950s malaise. Are the “Ethiopians” getting by? Mostly, yes. Has it been easy? Mostly, no. No policymaker of consequence has said, “They’re not Jews,” or “Of course they’re Jews,” in a manner that would stick for good. Lacking an appropriate hyphenated or hyphen-free tag for them, society has placed itself on linguistic autopilot, leaving them as “Ethiopian immigrants”—all 50,000 of them, including their Israeli-born children.

Deemed too culturally distant for “Russian”-style direct absorption, the “Ethiopians” were initially dispatched to mobile-home encampments and then, with purchase subsidies verging on 100%, referred to permanent housing in selected towns. This policy gave rise to concentrations in several outlying localities, some of them disadvantaged (see table).

Concentrations of Ethiopian Israelis, Selected Localities

(End of 1996)

Town

“Ethiopian” population

Pct. of population

Afula

4,000

11

Qiryat Gat

3,000

7

Ashqelon

2,000

2

Qiryat Malakhi

3,500

17

Netivot

1,350

9

Ofaqim

560

3

Arad

530

3

An Education Ministry survey of 1992 high-school graduates, most of whom reached Israel in Operation Moses (mid-1980s), revealed that 84% completed 12th-grade requirements, as against 72% of the population at large; in other words, “Ethiopians” are less inclined to drop out than Israelis in general. However, only 15% of these graduates earned matriculation certificates, as against 30% countrywide that year. Some 52% were satisfied with their education; 27% were dissatisfied. Some 56% had served in the army. Nearly all who had married had done so within their community, but half had no principled objections to “marrying out” and 90% would accept their children’s doing so. One-third were unemployed. More than half were unskilled or skilled industrial workers. Some 18.5% owned their own housing (population at large: about 75%); 41%, including some married couples, lived with their parents. Some 19.5% had experienced incidents of discrimination, but 81% did not believe their neighbors disliked them because of skin color. The respondents exhibited some movement toward secularization, coupled with scattered continued observance of Ethiopian-Jewish religious customs. A weekly program in Amharic on Voice of Israel radio commanded a 90% listenership rate among those polled.

Whatever the level of outright racism, sensitivity to it is rising. On Apr. 24, the decision to award an Israel Prize to veteran journalist Shmuel Schnitzer of Maariv was rescinded because of an August 1994 article in which he had referred to Falas Mura as “infested with disease,” particularly HIV. An originally acceptable Hebrew term for members of the community, kushim—“Cushites,” from a Biblical name for Ethiopia—is today considered to be a slur. Russian-born Maj. Michael Valitsky spent much of the year contesting the army’s decision to discharge him for addressing co-serviceman Avi Asmara as a kushi—in jest, he said. The term used by Schnitzer, shehorim—“blacks”—has descended to the same pejorative status.

The community has several abiding grievances. (1) There is a perceived national disinterest in preserving Ethiopian-Jewish culture and history and familiarizing Israelis at large with it; a memorial to the estimated 4,000 who perished en route from Ethiopia to Israel, at the southern entrance to Jerusalem, remains a community rather than a national venture. The year saw two breakthroughs on this front, however: At the end of 1997 nine “Ethiopian” synagogues were under construction around the country. On Nov. 27, 1997, the entire education system noted the occurrence of an important Ethiopian-Jewish festival, the Siged. (2) There is bitter resentment of the collective aspersions cast on Ethiopian immigrants because of their high incidence of HIV infection relative to the population at large. (3) The community is impatient with the prolonged bureaucratic stalling about bringing over the Falas Mura, nearly all of whom have relatives long landed in Israel.

The last of these complaints points to the end that Ethiopian Jewry seeks for itself and its aliya: full resettlement and integration in Israel.


Source: Israel Yearbook and Almanac 1998, pp. 72-74.