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A Look at Israel's Ethiopian Jewish Community - 2002-01-03


Israel has speeded up immigration procedures to bring hundreds of Jewish families from Argentina, following the collapse of political and economic structures there. These moves have raised concerns among Ethiopian Jews now in Israel that their relatives in Ethiopia, many of whom have been waiting years to get to Israel, may face even longer delays.

Seventy-four-year-old Tadek Reta Fanta smiles. "I always longed to come to Israel," he says. "My family and I waited four years in Addis Ababa to come and all the time I dreamed of Israel."

Tadek arrived a year ago with his 60-year-old wife and a 25-year-old son. Five other children and their families were already in Israel. Three other children remain in Ethiopia.

Tadek and his family join more than 80,000 other Jews who have migrated to Israel during the past 20 years from one of Africa's poorest countries.

Adjusting to life in Israel has not always been easy. Tadek's wife, Yeshambel, admits that learning Hebrew is an uphill battle. But she sees some positive aspects too. "In Ethiopia, we worked hard all the time on the land to get our food," she said. "But here, we just go to the supermarket and buy our food all ready."

Yeshambel's 25-year-old son, Asmamaow, regrets his lack of schooling, which would have helped prepare him for a new life. "I would have liked to become a teacher, but I am too old now to start," he said. Still, Asamamow said, he is determined to learn a trade and get settled.

Avraham Neguise runs an advocacy group for Ethiopians in Israel, called South Wing to Zion. He recognizes the frustrations they face, but says despite these most Ethiopians are pleased they came to Israel, a land that was always special to them. "The Ethiopian Jews always dreamed to return back to the promised land and to live here with the other Jewish communities, live in a Jewish state, and that was always the dream of the community," he said.

But Mr. Neguise worries more about the thousands left behind in Ethiopia who have been waiting for years to join their relatives. In the hope of getting to Israel more quickly, he said many of them have already left their villages. "Now we have 23,000 remaining in Ethiopia," he explained. "Out of 23,000, 19,000 have already left their natural surroundings, their villages. They became urban dwellers in Addis Ababa and Gundar. They live as refugees in their own country because they left their houses to come to Israel to reunite with their families."

Kasem Mekonen, who came to Israel a year ago from Ethiopia, is on the immigrant committee at an absorption center near Jerusalem. He said family separation is the biggest problem. We do not feel like we are really here, Kasem explains, because our families are still back in Ethiopia. Whatever allowance we get here, we share with those back home and we worry about their fate. "We do not feel like we are really here," Kasem explained, "because our families are still back in Ethiopia. Whatever allowance we get here, we share with those back home and we worry about their fate."

The immigration process has slowed to a trickle since two massive airlifts in 1984 and 1991 brought more than 35,000 Ethiopian Jews. Only 3,300 Ethiopian Jews entered Israel last year.

Mr. Neguise said the low figure is not because people do not want to come, but because Israel is raising questions about the Jewish heritage of those still in Ethiopia.

Israeli officials say many of those applying for immigration had converted to Christianity and are not eligible. Israel's Law of Return applies to the child, grandchild or spouse of a Jew, but not to a Jew who has voluntarily changed his religion.

Mr. Neguise understands the legal requirements, but says Israel should at least speed up the process for relatives of families already accepted in Israel.

When he sees Israel welcoming Jewish families from Argentina, Russia or the United States, Mr. Neguise says, like many Ethiopians, he worries about discrimination against Jews from poorer countries. "The principle of Israel and the existence of Israel is to give shelter, homeland for all Jewish people," he said. "So the [continued existence of the] Jewish state depends on Jews [coming] from the four corners of the earth to the promised land. Therefore, Israel exists to be home for every Jew, no matter if he is poor or rich, black or white or yellow."

Mike Rosenberg runs the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Department, which cares for new immigrants. He says there is no quota for Jewish immigrants, no matter where they come from, but he acknowledges that Ethiopian Jews face a burden in trying to assimilate into a more developed, hi-tech economy. "The absorption of Ethiopians is much more difficult," he said. "It is a much longer trek than any other population that has come to Israel. They are coming from a relatively primitive society. Most of them do not read or write in their own language. It is a long haul for them."

Mr. Rosenberg said much of the help is directed toward preparing Ethiopian children for a more productive life in Israel.

Avraham Neguise of South Wing to Zion acknowledges the number of Ethiopian youngsters attending high school and college is increasing steadily. He also says many are learning a skill during their army service.

Mr. Neguise says pressure is increasing on Israel to reunite divided families and process the remaining 23,000 applications.

A parliamentary committee in November recommended increasing monthly arrivals for Ethiopian Jews to 1,000. If the recommendation is adopted, the backlog of Ethiopian Jews waiting to come to Israel could be cleared up in a couple of years. But implementation of the recommendation must wait for full government approval.

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