EXODUS FROM ETHIOPIA. Secretly flown from drought-stricken Africa to modern-day Israel, Ethiopian Jews try to carve a new life in the `Promised Land'

The elderly black woman is a study in contrasts. Over an ill-fitting, egg-yolk-yellow polyester dress, she wears a traditional African cotton shawl wound around her shoulders. Her neck bears rings of tattoos, but her feet are shod in Western rubber thongs.

She is an Ethiopian Jew -- one of an estimated 12,000 rescued by the Israelis. In Ethiopa she is called a Falasha (meaning stranger) -- a term considered derogatory.

The polyester dress and thongs are donations from the United States. The shawl and tattoos are remnants of the life she and other Ethiopian Jews have left behind in impoverished Gondar Province.

Throughout the Shimshon Absorption Center, such contrasts are glaringly evident.

Ethiopian children wear American T-shirts and tennis shoes, but slip shyly into their native tongue, Amharic, with center officials. They play with black Cabbage Patch dolls donated in the United States and distributed by the Anti-Defamation League.

Perhaps the most striking contrast to the newly arrived immigrants is one of their peers -- 30-year-old Shmuel. Shmuel appears to have made the transition from a tribal, agrarian society to a modern one.

Four years ago, he walked 10 days through the desert from Gondar. There, Israelis provided him with ``food, clothes, everything,'' and Shmuel soon found himself stepping off a plane in Tel Aviv.

``When I got here, at first I didn't believe I was in Israel,'' says Shmuel, a tall, thin, soft-spoken man. ``But when I saw Jerusalem, that was just as I thought it would be.''

Today, Shmuel is fluent in Hebrew and also speaks English. He works as a translator and counselor at the Shimshon Center run by the Jewish Agency which coordinates the use of funds raised worldwide.

Most Ethiopian Jews -- including Shmuel's mother, father, brothers, and sisters -- were brought to Israel in a massive, secret airlift last December.

The Ethiopians, most of them impoverished farmers, have flooded the absorption centers where they learn everything from Hebrew to how to shop in a modern grocery store. Some 3,000 are housed in hotels rented by the Jewish Agency to handle the spillover from the centers.

The Ethiopian woman wearing the donated dress is part of a trickle of immigrants that started arriving in Israel five years ago. She has lived in a sparsely furnished apartment provided by the Jewish Agency for more than three years. The beds and chairs -- even the sheets and blankets -- all are donations.

Another 375 Ethiopian Jews live in the center, which consists of a block of apartments with a central office, schoolrooms, and nurseries.

``I like working with them,'' says Rachel, a young Israeli working at Shimshon. ``They are very beautiful people.''

Israelis in general have been caught up in the excitement and pride of having rescued a people they believed to be endangered. Jewish Agency officials say that they have been flooded with volunteers and are turning away clothing donations because the absorption centers have more than they need.

Many questions remain, however, about how these black Jews will integrate into an Israeli society already torn by ethnic, cultural, and religious divisions.

In the few months since the airlift, debates have developed on many issues: the religious status of the Ethiopians in the Jewish state, how the Jewish Agency is handling their absorption, how the government will fund permanent housing for the immigrants, whether the Ethiopians will face racial discrimination, and whether the new immigrants will be able to find jobs in a nation in the throes of its worst economic crisis.

Anthropologists, civil libertarians, and some Ethiopian groups that have already formed in Israel have criticized the Jewish Agency's handling of the Ethiopians.

``For me, the way Israel is dealing with the Ethiopians is a kind of ethnocide,'' says Uri Huppert, an Israeli lawyer who founded the Movement Against Religious Coercion in Israel and for Separation of State and Religion. He cites the insistence of the chief rabbinate that Ethiopian Jews undergo a conversion ceremony upon their arrival to overcome doubts about the legality, under Jewish law, of their marriage and divorce ceremonies.

``The Ethiopians say, rightly, that they came to Israel because they are Jewish, not because they want to become Jewish,'' says Mr. Huppert.

Some Ethiopians have protested the conversion ceremonies and refused to participate. The rabbinate may refuse to acknowledge the marriages of those who do not.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency acknowledged that many problems are involved in integrating the Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society. Some new immigrants have experienced such deep depression that there have been a number of suicides reported.

However, Steve Kaplan of the Truman Institute for African Studies says, ``At the level of the people dealing on a day-to-day basis with the Ethiopians, I've been overwhelmingly impressed with the good intentions and the effort to understand the problems.''

Bringing the black Jews to Israel, ``absolutely refutes the cruel and incorrect assumptioin that Zionism equals racism,'' says Moshe Gilboa, director of the World Jewish Affairs division of the Foreign Ministry in a January press conference held in Jerusalem. He was referring to a charge made by some Islamic nations and a United Nations resolution passed in 1975 equating Zionism with racism.

Several Israeli officials have pointed out that no other nation has offered to take any of the millions of Ethiopian refugees who are flooding into Sudan.

But doubt remains about how well the Ethiopian Jews will fit into Israeli society. The normal absorption period of six months has been extended to one year for the newly arrived Ethiopians. Many of the immigrants have to learn the basics of functioning in a technological society.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres estimated in April that the absorption of the Ethiopians has so far cost the state $300 million. Protests were voiced in newspaper editorials when it was revealed that the government spent $20,000 per family to house some new immigrants in hotels for a year because the absorption centers were too full.

Mr. Peres said in a speech in Tel Aviv that the money spent on the absorption effort ``was not budgeted. But I think you all agree it was worth spending less on other things to save lives.'' The government and the Jewish Agency's handling of the Ethiopians will continue to be watchdogged by Israelis, world Jewry and Ethiopians who arrived in the earlier, smaller influx of immigrants.

Paul Laderman, Israel director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, is optimistic about the fate of the Ethiopians. He and many other Israelis stress the eagerness of the Ethiopians to be, as one sociologist put it, ``more Israeli than the Israelis.''

``There is not going to be a color problem,'' Laderman predicts. ``The problem is going to come a few years downstream when the Ethiopians, who have a high motivation to make it, start to pass up other, earlier immigrant waves on the social and economic scales.''

Because of the sensitive nature of this material, the Israeli government required that the story be submitted to military censors who deleted details about the secret airlifts of Ethiopian Jews. History of a `lost' tribe

Some rabbis believe the Ethiopian Jews are the remnant of the lost ancient Hebrew tribe of Dan, one of 10 tribes carried away by the Assyrian conquerors of Israel in 722 BC.

Most historians, however, do not accept the rabbinical explanation. There are several theories explaining the origin of the Ethiopian Jews.

What is undisputed is that for at least 1,600 years -- some say 2,500 years -- Ethiopian Jews, like those pictured here, have practiced an ancient version of Judaism based on the five books of Moses.

Ethiopian Jews call themselves ``Beta Israel'' (House of Israel) and claim descent from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon's son. They speak Amharic, a language that contains some Hebrew words.

For centuries, they believed they were the only Jews in the world. They observed Jewish dietary laws and festivals, circumcised their sons, and dreamed of returning to the Holy City.

Only in 1973 were Ethiopian Jews recognized as Jews by Israel's chief rabbis. In 1975, the Israeli government followed suit and entitled them to instant citizenship under the ``law of return.''

Under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Israelis began a concerted effort to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The task was complicated by the fact that Israel has no official ties with Marxist Ethiopia and that immigration from Ethiopia is illegal.

Last November an estimated 7,000 Ethiopian Jews arrived here in a secret airlift -- dubbed Operation Moses -- from Sudanese refugee camps. The airlift halted when Israel publicly acknowledged it had been engaged in the airlift for several years.

The Israelis are proud of having rescued the Ethiopian Jews from the camps and the action was generally applauded in the West.

But Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile-Mariam charged that the Israelis had kidnapped the Ethiopian Jews, forcing them to resettle in Israel, where they are victims of racial discrimination. Mr. Mengistu demanded in January that the Ethiopian Jews be returned.

Instead, according to a report published by the Los Angeles Times in March, the Israelis mounted another secret airlift -- with the covert help of the United States -- that brought the last Ethiopian Jews remaining in the Sudanese refugee camps to Israel.

An estimated 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, most of them elderly or ill, are believed still to be in Ethiopia.

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