Natan Sabahat says that he worries about making ends meet. The 36-year-old father of four struggles daily to support his family on a salary of $450 a month, which, because of Israel’s high prices, does not go far. For Sabahat, as for most of the 12,000 Ethiopian Jews who have settled in Israel since 1977, the long-cherished dream of a Jewish homeland has become a cold reality of culture shock and economic uncertainty. But the greatest agony of resettlement has been the memory of family members left behind. Sabahat’s father, two sisters and five brothers are able to write him only twice a year; they are among more than 10,000 Jews still living in Marxistgoverned Ethiopia. The possibility that Sabahat may never see those relatives again, coupled with the prejudice and unfamiliar customs that he has encountered, are at the root of his overwhelming sense of bitterness and defeat. “If I had known Israel would be like this,” he told Maclean's, “I would never have come.”
Sabahat’s disillusionment is echoed
by many of those in Israel’s new community of Ethiopian Jews. Known in Ethiopia as Falashas—a pejorative word meaning outcasts—they are believed to be one of the 10 Hebrew tribes lost after the Assyrian conquest of 721 BC and have worshipped in isolation for
For Ethiopian Jews, the dream of a Jewish homeland has become a cold reality of culture shock and disillusionment
more than 2,000 years. Israel officially recognized the Ethiopians as Jews in 1975, two years before Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam established his regime after a military coup. Since then, Ethiopian Jews have continued to escape from the country despite harsh emigration laws—a process aided by Operation Moses and Operation Joshua, the covert Israeli and U.S. airlifts of 1984 and 1985.
By the time unfavorable publicity halted the airlifts, about half of all Ethiopian Jews had settled in Israel.
For the new immigrants, the necessary adjustments were numerous. Many of them, unaccustomed to plumbing, used the toilet bowls in their government-provided settlement houses as laundry tubs. Since then, some Ethiopian Jews have become university graduates and army officers. But many complain of having been forced into ghettos, and although 95 per cent of the adults are employed, most work in factories or other menial jobs with little chance of advancement. “I want to progress, but I cannot,” said Sabahat, who works at a community centre.
At the same time, many have found it difficult to deal with the bureaucracy of officials, teachers and social workers involved in the $300-million absorption effort set up for the newcomers. For a few, the strain of a new life in a foreign land has been too great. Said Mesfin Ambaw, chairman of the Association of Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel: “There have been 22 suicides in the past two years. In Ethiopia our community did not know what mental illness was.” Added Ambaw, who arrived in Israel in 1980 after walking across the Sudan: “Here, it is happening.”
One of the most controversial aspects of resettlement, however, has been the
question of religious discrimination. Because of centuries of isolation from the mainstream of Jewish law and practice,
Ethiopians wishing to be fully integrated into religious life have had to undergo ritual conversion ceremonies. But devout Ethiopians say that those demands —previously including a drop of blood from males as a ritual circumcision—are an outrage. Said Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeliborn Canadian producer of two films about Ethiopian Jewry: “A person could lose half his family trying to get to the Holy Land, then get here and be told to drop his pants.”
But as the Ethiopian community in Israel has grown more cohesive, many members have refused conversion. And the newcomers have in recent months rallied around one cause: those left behind. Reports of the detention without charge of 28 Jews in Ethiopia since February has added to the concerns of those immigrants separated from relatives who are lobbying Israeli members
of parliament to pursue family reunification.
That concern is shared by members of Canada’s Jewish community, who say that External Affairs Minister Joe Clark should apply the political pressure that Canada’s excellent record of development aid to Ethiopia can command. But complete emigration is unlikely because of the Mengistu regime’s official
view of Jewish emigration as a loss of the country’s heritage. Said David MacDonald, Canada’s ambassador to Ethiopia: “If we interfere, the walls might come crashing down on members of the community there.” But Jacobovici said that Canada could take firmer action to pursue family reunification. “All of diplomacy is sensitive,” he said. “If that was an excuse not to act, nothing would ever get done.” Despite the controversy surrounding the Ethiopian Jews, Israelis generally take pride in their presence. Declared Avi Gil, press attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa: “We have made mistakes with the Ethiopians, but we are continually trying to take care of them. They are part of the family.” And although the immediate prospects for a reunited Ethiopian Jewish community appear slim, the developing voice of the Israeli newcomers is its brightest hope for survival.
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