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Ethiopian Jewry: Israel’s First Ethiopian Jewish Doctor

by Judy Siegel-Itzkovich

On November 10, 1999, 27-year-old Avraham Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian immigrant to earn an MD degree in Israel. His first assignment was working as an itern at the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba and afterwards he served as a physician in the Israel Defense Forces.

After nearly nine years in Israel, Yitzhak graduated from the medical school of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva and officialy became the first Ethiopian immigrant to earn an MD degree. Not only does he speak perfect Hebrew, but his high marks placed him among the ten best students in his graduating class, and he was asked to deliver the valedictory address.

Extremely bright, Yitzhak graduated from high school in Addis Ababa at the age of 15, and before emigrating from Ethiopia in 1991, he was the only Jew in Addis Ababa University Medical School. Now, at age 28, Dr. Yitzhak has the broad smile of a man who has found his way home and the assurance and self-confidence lacking in many recent immigrants. He is also a family man, married to fellow-immigrant Genet, a social worker, who gave birth to their second child not long after his graduation. Currently doing his internship at Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, he is due soon to start his military service as a physician. He wants to specialize in internal medicine or in surgery.

Yitzhak arrived here alone three weeks before the famous Operation Solomon, which brought 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in a mass airlift; he was one of the last in his family to immigrate. His father, who had been an educator and head of the Addis branch of ORT (Organization for Relief through Training), and his four siblings had to leave Ethiopia because of earlier pro-Israel activities.

When Avraham was in his third year of studies in Addis, his father returned for a visit, and they had an emotional reunion on campus. But when the visit of his father - who was wanted by the Ethiopian government for his Zionist activities - became known, he was prohibited from taking his belongings and books out of the dormitory building; and finally, with the authorities on his heels, he ran to the Israel Embassy for assistance.

Although medicine now fascinates him, Yitzhak was actually dared by friends to apply to the English-speaking medical school of Addis Ababa University. "I took the tests and did well. After getting into medicine, I fell in love with it, and I studied there for three-and-a-half years," he recalls.

However, what he learned in Addis was purely theoretical. "We didn't have the medicines or equipment to apply what we learned." Accepted by both the medical schools of Tel Aviv University and BGU, Yitzhak decided to settle down in the south. He also insisted on going back to the beginning of his studies, rather than continuing with the third-year curriculum.

When asked about the difficulties he faced as a medical student at BGU, he says quietly, "There is always some racism, but it comes from people who don't know you. At first, I felt hurt; I took it personally. But I was determined not to let it bother me."

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry; Israel Magazine-On-Web, April 2000,:Jerusalem Post, (November 11, 1999)