Israel's Absorption of Ethiopian Immigrants Poses Special Challenges

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Amid its ongoing battle against Palestinian terrorism over the past four years, Israel has been absorbing thousands of Ethiopian immigrants with a distant Jewish lineage.

For these newcomers to Israel, everything from electricity to banking -- even reading and writing -- are novelties.

Israel has ample experience in absorbing immigrants from around the world -- more than a million from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s alone -- but the Ethiopians pose unique challenges.

According to Israeli Jewish law, the Ethiopians are not Jewish but rather are descendants of Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, some of them forcibly. Most of the immigrants are illiterate villagers who have never seen books or photographs before now.

The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel currently numbers about 100,000, including those born in Israel.

Immigration of Jews from Ethiopia began in 1977 and has continued in waves since then. That includes Operation Moses from 1980-1985, when Jews were secretly brought through Sudan, a Muslim country with whom Israel had no diplomatic relations; and Operation Solomon in 1991, when 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported to Israel in a secret, 36-hour airlift.

But others were left behind because they could not prove their Jewish heritage. Known in Ethiopia by the somewhat derogatory term of Falash Mura (strangers), some 15,000 Ethiopians are still waiting to come to Israel.

According to the Law of Return, a person is allowed to immigrate to Israel if at least one of his grandparents was Jewish -- had a Jewish mother, in other words -- and has not converted to another religion.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government agreed to bring the Ethiopian descendants of Jews to Israel at a rate of about 300 a month.

But now the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization responsible for immigration to Israel, hopes to speed up that process by bringing some 15,000 Ethiopians here over the next four years, said Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz.

Funded in part by a $50-million grant from the U.S. Congress and generous donations from American Jewish organizations and some Christians, it will cost about $100,000 over a four-year period to absorb each new immigrant, Jankelowitz said.

What is unique about these prospective immigrants is that they all want to come to Israel: "They are not clamoring to go to the U.S. or Canada," Jankelowitz said, and that is why American Jewish groups are pressing Israel to speed up the process to bring them here.

New arrivals

The new arrivals in Israel are placed in absorption centers run by the Jewish Agency. There are about 20 such centers throughout the country.

Meir Russo is manager of the 55-dunam (14-acre) Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center -- located in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevzseret Zion -- where some 1,300 immigrants live. More than half are children, age 18 or younger.

Nothing is easy for them, Russo said. They live in small furnished apartments -- two rooms for a family of five, double that if the family has six or more people -- at the absorption centers for a year to 18 months, learning everything they can about Israel, Judaism and the Western world.

"Israel is a modern country," said Russo. They must learn to deal with how the country works, how the municipality runs, the environment, nature, health, industry, Israeli culture and tradition, he said.

"We teach them what is a bank, what is a bank account, what is money, how to use the money wisely...what is the family priority -- what to give to first," he said.

Various programs teach the immigrants everything they need to know, including using a computer or playing with toys in a giant playroom.

The children and teenagers adapt much more quickly, Russo said. They take special courses for a year before being mainstreamed in local schools. They are treated to a variety of after-school activities, such as sports, music, drama and computers. Teachers at a special information center help the children with their homework.

Teams of counselors and social workers offer help with the complexities of daily life, and when it is time to leave the center, the immigrants get help finding an apartment. According to Russo, all the immigrants who seek work find it, however menial it may be.

"The idea is, from the plate to the refrigerator, there is someone for them to turn to for whatever problem they might face. Its not a normal place, it's a pressure cooker. To be a new immigrant in hard," Russo said.

"Together with this...[we] do everything to make sure that the tradition that comes from Ethiopia will remain, the talents [they have] are very rich," he said. "It would be a pity if they were lost."

In a small yard between classrooms stands something called the Ethiopian village, which includes replicas of the thatched huts the immigrants left behind. Teenagers gather there for discussion groups.

Soft landing

Gila Netzer is the manager of the ulpan (Hebrew school) at the absorption center. This is where Ethiopians learn the basics of the new culture and customs in their mother tongue - Amharic. Most Hebrew schools teach only in Hebrew.

"The goal is to make it easier for them in the beginning their 'landing,'" Netzer said. "For them, there are very many new things -- a modern world that they don't know...

"The children are not at home; they're at school or kindergarten. All of life is different. Also they study seven hours a day -- five hours of Hebrew in the morning and two hours of Judaism and conversion in the afternoon," she said.

"They have a different clock in Ethiopia. They have a different rhythm of life there," she said. "They [must] learn what it means to come on time because in Ethiopia, if [someone] says he will come tomorrow in the morning at 9 o'clock and he arrives tomorrow at 4:30 in the afternoon, they are happy that he arrived...because there were dangers on the way. Here if [we] say 9 o'clock, we want them to be here at 9 o'clock."

Ninety-five percent of the people have never studied, Netzer said, and now they must sit in class seven hours a day. Most have never seena book, a picture, the alphabet or even a number.

"A person from the West is used to looking at a picture [and receives] a lot of information. They are not used to this at all," she said. For example if they see a picture of a washing machine they think it is only a few inches tall until they have seen the actual appliance, she added.

They don't know how to hold a pencil or page through a book to reach page 100 without turning one page at a time, she said.

After two months, the immigrants are tested to see how well they're absorbing their many lessons.

Despite the challenges, she said, the teachers who work with them have a deep love for their students and don't want to return to work with other immigrants.

Nurit Zouta is one of those teachers. "I was afraid. In the beginning I taught educated immigrants from Russia, from the U.S., and I was afraid because I said, 'How can I teach people that never studied? How can I teach them Hebrew?' It was really a challenge," Zouta said.

Zouta said she began to understand that these people were clever in their own way.

"[Just because] they don't have an alphabet it doesn't mean they are not clever. Simply, they didn't have the opportunity to study. Suddenly [we begin] to see how wise they are," she said.

In 1991, when Nagu Isaias was 25 years old, he immigrated to Israel with his sister. Isaias now 38, is a teacher at the absorption center, where the new immigrants have many questions.

"It's hard for them, the language, the culture, all the mentality, even the color of your skin is a challenge... In all their lives they never saw a person of a different color. [The new immigrant] comes here in a panic," Isaias said.

"For me, I conquered the absorption [process]," said Isaias who is now married with two children of his own. "I learned everything here [in Israel]," Isaias said. "Everything I went through here I tell them was not easy.""