Actually an Astonishing Success

Published on Haaretz

The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel are preparing to make history by bringing the Ethiopian aliyah to its rightful and successful conclusion. The one obstacle is the treasury, which is more concerned with costs than with the ingathering of the exiles.

Early in 2010, Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, and Eli Yishai, the interior minister, gave the green light to completing the Falashmura aliyah. If the treasury does not get in the way, the government will finally join in, voting two Sundays from now to check the aliyah eligibility of the remaining 7,846 Falashmura in Gondar and commit to bring all those who meet the strict criteria – some of which are applied only to Falashmura – to Israel within three years.

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In concert with the government decision, the Jewish Agency is expected to sign an agreement with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, to take over and run the Gondar compound, a makeshift service center that includes a school, food program, synagogue and mikveh.

The Finance Ministry wants to drag out the immigration process to avoid the expense of additional absorption centers, but we should resist this post-Zionist calculus. While the treasury may not think Ethiopian immigrants are a good investment, in fact, their aliyah is a great success story.

Two weeks ago, I attended the annual conference of Olim Beyahad (Rising up Together), an NGO that over the past four years has helped place and mentor 320 Israeli-Ethiopian college graduates in workplaces appropriate to their skills and education, including IBM, HP, Amdocs and a multitude of other firms, banks and service agencies. Among the 13 employees who have been hired by Bank Hapoalim, four are in the managerial program, which CEO Zion Keinan described as Hapoalim’s “pilots course,” referring to the most prestigious and selective track of Israel’s military.

This is today’s Israel at its very best. Every one of these employers overcame preconceptions to reach out and accept qualified Ethiopian applicants. Consider that those 320 employees – like most of the 110,000 Ethiopians in Israel – not only had to leap over a social, economic and cultural chasm, but also that that chasm has been far larger than that faced by any previous wave of aliyah.

If you have not visited Ethiopia, it’s hard to grasp the simplicity of village life there, even in 2010. Houses are made of freshly cut branches or stones, held together with mud. Forget about electricity or plumbing. Most people don’t have cars, and routinely walk for miles on unpaved roads to get to a roadside market, or dozens of miles, when necessary, to reach a hospital. I saw a 2,000-year-old drawing in a museum of a man steering a plow pulled by an ox, which was identical to what I saw in the fields outside the museum. Vulnerability to the elements, such as droughts or floods, is total.

When Jews came in the 1950s or ’60s, Israel was much less complex and far less technologically sophisticated than it is today. A villager brought here on the “magic carpet” of the Yemenite airlift, for example, might have felt out of place, but he would have joined a communalist agricultural society dominated by villagers, even if their villages were called kibbutzim and moshavim.

Since that time, Israel has evolved into a start-up giant of 7.5 million people, with an economy so fiercely competitive it has left many of its veteran citizens straggling behind.

Some of my Ethiopian colleagues from the NGO world were raised to bring the water from the well, or as barefoot shepherds, to mind the family goats and sheep from age 3 or 4, watching out not only for robbers but for lions. They had no schooling before age 12 or before they came to Israel.

Today those same people serve as officers in the Israel Defense Forces, have master’s degrees and doctorates, and have assumed leadership positions. They and others like them have formed dozens of organizations to help themselves, from the Fidel Association to Tebeka, from the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews to South Wing to Zion, to Friends by Nature – the last a group of veteran Israeli and immigrant families who moved into a poor Ethiopian neighborhood in Gedera to help contribute to that community.

I do not want to downplay the hardships endured daily by much of the Ethiopian immigrant community. But when we consider how poorly their old lives prepared them for Israel today, we could hardly have expected the success of those described above. Their achievements should astonish us.

They haven’t done it alone. There is not enough space to list all the funds and agencies and programs dedicated to helping the Ethiopian community. But whether they originate in the Yemin Orde boarding school or the Ministry of Education or the municipalities or the Joint Distribution Committee or private foundations such as the one I represent, these efforts, too, should make us proud. This is what Israel was founded to do.

North American Jewry, which took the lead on the Ethiopian immigration, must rally once more to finish what it began a quarter of a century ago. Hopefully, our government will have the foresight to vote yes and bring the Falashmura here as quickly as possible, so the next stage of absorption and society-building can begin.

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