The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the dramatic airlift that first brought his fellow Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and Kes Berhanu Yeheyi stood before a crowd of hundreds, looking resplendent in a white turban and black cape.
A man of the cloth, Kes Berhanu is used to commanding an audience, but the mood of this one soon turned testy. Some of the young Ethiopians who helped fill this small Israeli town’s recreation center listened with as much embarrassment as pride as the caramel-skinned religious leader struggled to speak the language of his adopted land.
“Please, in Amharic!” a few shouted in Amharic, urging him to stop mangling Hebrew and speak in his native Ethiopian tongue. While white Israelis on the panel looked on, some of the Ethiopians slid low in their seats and others hid their faces.
Kes Berhanu smoothly shifted to Amharic, accustomed to humiliations. He had arrived in Israel, after all, in the first wave of Ethiopian Jews, when Israeli rabbis told them they had to be symbolically “re-circumcised.” (In later days, the rabbis decided it would suffice to draw a symbolic drop of blood from the penis.)
“We held on to our faith for generations,” said Kes Berhanu in an interview. He is a slightly built man in his 50s, and addressed the crowd while holding a walking cane in one hand, a fly-whisk in the other. “You can’t destroy our religion and our culture.”
But the experience of Ethiopian Jews in Israel over the past two decades is testing the limits of that declaration. Kes Berhanu and members of his audience are living symbols of Israel’s pledge of aliyah, or return—the promise to accept all Jews in the Promised Land. And since that first airlift on Nov. 19, 1984, Ethiopian Jews have earned a reputation among Palestinians as among the most fervent defenders of Israel.
A new identity
At the same time, they occupy the lowest rung on Israel’s economic ladder and face discrimination that has spawned a new racial identity—one they had never known before. Many say the community of 100,000 is facing a spiritual crisis, its members at risk of becoming a permanent underclass of Israeli society.
And—as poignantly reflected in the awkward dynamic at the hall where Kes Berhanu spoke—Ethiopian Jews are split between the generation that made the roughly 1,500-mile journey to Israel and the one that grew up in a society that has struggled to assimilate them. “You could summarize what’s troubling [Ethiopian Jews] in one word: belonging,” said Gadi BenEzer, a sociologist who has studied the community for more than a decade. “They don’t have a sense of belonging. They arrived in Israel like a river joining the sea, but what they encountered was disappointment and suspicion about their identity.”
Twenty years ago, there seemed to be little doubt where they belonged. The Falashas—or the Beta Israel, as they prefer to be called—lived in the mountainous regions of northern Ethiopia. For millennia, they were isolated from the larger stream of Jewish history and from Ethiopia’s Christian and Muslim cultures.
Some among the Beta Israel believe they descended from the time of the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba 2,500 years ago, while others believe they descended from the tribe of Dan, one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
For centuries, Ethiopian Jews had observed the Sabbath on Saturday and followed rituals distinct from their Christian neighbors. Isolated from the Judaic oral laws that created the Talmud, their belief was based on the Torah—the written body of Jewish law and teachings—and many of their current practices are similar to those of biblical and Talmudic times.
Starting in the 1920s, though, Jews from other parts of the world sought out the Beta Israel in rural Ethiopia, helping a small number immigrate to Palestine. Then, a few decades after Israel was founded as a Jewish state in 1948, the government—with financial support from American Jews—launched the first airlift, Operation Moses, in 1984.
For the Falasha, the journey held the promise of a religious quest but also escape from a subsistence existence on drought-prone land in one of the poorest regions of Ethiopia. Very few of them knew about electricity, running water or medical facilities.
The airlift—which left from Sudan—was far from flawless. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the dictator who held power in Ethiopia, was willing to let the Jews go—for a price—but did not want Israeli planes in his country. There also was danger that Sudan, a member of the Arab League, would ban the exodus if it became public before it was completed.
About 4,000 of the 20,000 Ethiopian Jews who embarked on the journey reportedly died while trekking from Ethiopia to Sudan, deaths that still sting the survivors.
Despite the deaths, Israel followed up with Operation Solomon in 1991, airlifting thousands more to Israel. A country that had grown strong in large part by welcoming Jews from the United States, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America and elsewhere was undertaking the most far- reaching effort to unite its family. The only task that remained was absorbing them, but that perhaps proved to be the most difficult.
“In the entire history of mankind there wasn’t such a thing that a whole tribe—a whole community—moves to a Western country,” said Chaim Peri, an Israeli educator who has worked with Ethiopian students. “It’s a great challenge for Israel and the Ethiopians themselves.”
The Israeli government tried to meet the challenge by taking young Ethiopian Jews from their parents and placing them in boarding schools.
The parents went along, partly because they hoped the state would help their children assimilate and partly because they were not in a position to protest.
Nearly 95 percent of Ethiopian immigrant children were sent to the state-funded boarding schools, which are based on a combination of kibbutz life and traditional European away- from-home education.
They studied Hebrew (a language most of their parents did not speak), and their native Amharic and Tigrigna began to fade. In some of these schools, a new generation of Ethiopian Jews began to believe they came from a backward, primitive culture that they must forget. They became a confused hybrid, neither Israeli nor Ethiopian, ersatz characters who increasingly copy the style and fashion of Rastafarians or black American hip-hop icons in their search for an identity.
Many of the schools have become breeding grounds for dysfunctional Ethiopian Jews, churning out poorly educated graduates at best, or maladjusted youth who are turning increasingly to criminal activity.
“The government has taken the kids away from the parents and said, ‘I know what’s best for your children,’“ said Nega Wondmeneh, an Ethiopian who runs a counseling center at the Tel Aviv bus station for troubled young Ethiopians.
“The kids start getting an inferiority complex,” Wondmeneh said. “Some of them grow up to become street kids and come [to the bus station] to drink, take drugs and steal.”
Aster Alemu, 24, who comes from a well-educated Ethiopian family, saw the dynamic firsthand when she was a teacher’s aide in a class of 8-year-old Ethiopians as part of the national service that all Israelis are expected to perform.
“One child was very smart. He would finish his work and start talking to the other kids,” Alemu said. “The teacher hated him and said he had a mental problem and he had to take medicine to calm him down. And there were many cases like this.”
Although today Ethiopian parents can choose whether to send their children away to school, many question the decision to send the children to boarding schools in the first place.
“Sending these kids to religious boarding schools had nothing to do with their welfare, but . . . everything to do with politics,” said Batia Iyob, executive director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, a private advocacy and service organization. Iyob said the schools had been falling apart “and now they were getting [government] money because Ethiopian children were coming.”
Iyob was born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and educated in Canada. Her family was not part of the airlift. “The comparison should not be how we’re doing better than we were in Ethiopia, but how well we’re doing as part of Israeli society.”
On that score, Steven Kaplan is worried. Kaplan, chairman of the Institute of African and Asian Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a specialist on Ethiopian Jewry, said the community is “seriously in crisis” and “beginning to fit this idea of underclass.”
Indeed, the unemployment rate for Ethiopians is more than 60 percent and the high school dropout rate is double the national average. In addition, a strong majority of Israelis agreed in a poll published by Yedioth Ahronoth last year that Ethiopians face the most discrimination next to Arabs.
Ethiopians, coming from a culture where it is considered rude to look someone in the eyes for too long, seem lost in the vibrantly in-your-face culture of Israeli society. Most Israelis equate avoiding eye contact with lack of confidence and shiftiness.
And so an alienated young generation is seeking its identity in global black icons rather than its Jewish heritage. Kaplan calls the phenomenon “rap, reggae and Reeboks.”
“Israelis say Ethiopians are black but Ethiopians did not consider themselves to be black,” Kaplan said. “They became black when they came to Israel. You see young people identifying with reggae music, Afro-Caribbean culture that people tend to view as natural, but it’s not natural. It’s a choice they made, because it speaks to them.”
In a manner that some Israelis find disconcerting, the Ethiopians who willingly came here are asserting a black vs. white identity that mirrors race relations in the United States and other Western nations. Until recently, the most popular Ethiopian nightclub was called “Soweto,” after the township in South Africa. Young Ethiopians in baggy pants and dreadlocks rap in Hebrew and Amharic about racism in Israeli society and their longing for “liberation.”
In some cases, Ethiopian Jews are doing exactly as Israel had hoped: joining the landscape of Israeli culture, serving in the army as part of their national service, speaking fluent Hebrew and taking the Israeli side in the struggle against the Palestinians.
“How many Arabs have you killed?” Danny Abebe teased Oren Tsegaye as they drove back from Ramla to Jerusalem after the conference at which Kes Berhanu spoke. The two men, who are in their late 20s, went to the same boarding school, but have taken different paths since graduation. Abebe is a reporter for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper.
He arrived from Ethiopia at the age of 7 and had never seen a car before he undertook the journey to the plane that brought him to Israel. Now, he is a chain- smoking, wild-haired skeptic.
Tsegaye is a father of four, wears a yarmulke, and his is the only Ethiopian family in the West Bank settlement of Shivut Rahel. Like some other Israelis, he never goes anywhere without a handgun tucked into his belt.
Tsegaye served as an officer in the Israeli army and goes back every year for brief periods as a volunteer. At Shivut Rahel, he serves guard duty once a month, for 24 hours. An observant Jew who works as a cultural adviser at a Jerusalem school with a sizable Ethiopian population, Tsegaye said he carries the Ruger pistol to protect his own children and his wife.
(Asked how he fits in among the 69 families at the settlement, he said, “It’s a one-to-one thing. It’s how you get along with people as an individual.”)
Some other young Ethiopians have joined Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, turning into hard-liners in the struggle against the Palestinians.
Almost all young Ethiopians serve in Israel’s national service, as do most Israelis. Many Palestinians have a story about a nasty encounter with an Ethiopian soldier. “[Ethiopian Jews] complain about injustice, but they don’t see the injustice done to us,” said Amira Moussa, a manager of a Palestinian community center.
Unable to adjust
While Tsegaye is a success story by Israeli standards, Molalegne Abeje, 27, wants out. He was once a conscript of the Israel Defense Forces and he felt a part of this fast-paced society. Since leaving the service, he is a lost soul, unable to adjust to his new identity as an Israeli.
He is among a group of young Ethiopians who while away their days at Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Social workers who counsel them say they are a warning to Israeli society of a silent crisis unfolding in the Ethiopian community.
Abeje grew up in rural northern Ethiopia, listening to his father yearn for the land of Israel. For Abeje, the dream came true when he arrived in Israel 10 years ago at the age of 17.
But today, his parents are dead and he is estranged from the rest of his family because they don’t understand his alienation from Israeli society.
Abeje said his younger brother, Wedefit, was equally disconnected from his family and his Jewish roots until he found salvation—as a born-again Christian.
Abeje said he would love to move to the United States; even returning to poverty-stricken Ethiopia would be preferable to his present life. “When I talk this way, my friends think I am crazy,” said Abeje, speaking in his native Amharic.
“This is a good country. You can make a living. But I just don’t feel I belong here. In Ethiopia, my stomach may not be full, but at least I felt at home.”
To be sure, very few Ethiopians want to leave Israel. But stories such as Abeje’s hint at the trouble the Ethiopian community faces. In response, philanthropic organizations have launched the New Israel Fund for Ethiopians—seen by some as an acknowledgment that the tens of millions of dollars spent so far have not fully addressed deep-rooted problems.
“Ethiopian Jews are particularly troubled by stereotyping and discrimination by the rest of Israeli society,” the fund reports on its Web site.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption, said in an interview that the government is adjusting its strategy for the Ethiopian community by learning from past miscues. In recent years, the government has spent more resources on Ethiopians than any other immigrant community, she said.
By offering generous housing loans, Livni said, the government has helped 70 percent of Ethiopians own their homes. But, she said, critics focus on the fact that most of these homes are in depressed neighborhoods.
Photographs of Ethiopian students who have died in the line of duty as members of the Israel Defense Forces decorate the office wall of Chaim Peri, the Israeli educator. Peri runs Yemin Orde, one of the rare boarding schools that has consistently graduated successful Ethiopian students.
Some of those graduates from Yemin Orde, which is located near Haifa, returned to Ethiopia in an effort to help alleviate poverty there, and their report on their work lay on Peri’s desk. “I once said to [white Israeli] kids: You know how God tests us?” Peri added. “He took 100,000 Jews, dipped them in chocolate, put them in front of us and said, ‘See who you are. Are you racists or can you recognize your brothers and sisters?’”