Opportunity, hostility coincide for Israel's Ethiopian Jews

Ten years after a dramatic rescue, Israel's `lost tribe' sees mixed results

AS their parents chat in Amharic and cook Ethiopian foods, three schoolchildren stop their games to greet a visitor. ``Shalom,'' one says in fluent Hebrew. ``I'm nine years old and I go to school every day.''

Their parents look on with evident pride. ``We wanted to come here and be with Jews,'' says Desta Balayish, in accented Hebrew.

Through the window of their mobile home, the hills that gleam in the sun are not those of their native Addis Ababa or Gonder, Ethiopia, but of Jerusalem.

One of the strangest mass migrations in recent history has brought 50,000 black Ethiopian Jews since 1984 from a quasi-feudal life in rural Ethiopia to a modern, white country - Israel - in two dramatic airlifts carried out under hostile conditions.

``There are many problems,'' one woman admits. ``But the main thing is that everyone who comes to Israel is happy. For many years it was only a dream - everyone wanted to come to Jerusalem. You heard it from your grandparents. Now people feel free - just to be where everyone has the same religion.''

``The Ethiopians didn't like us,'' says a young mother cooking spaghetti for dinner. ``We lived alone, with our families, in Jewish villages. The Ethiopians wanted us to stay there and make their tools and do weaving. Only Jews did that.''

But now the Jews have gone. Long called Falashas - an offensive word meaning strangers - they simply abandoned their homes and villages after centuries, perhaps millennia.

In 1984-85, secret Israeli teams led a stream of nearly 10,000 Ethiopian Jews on Operation Moses, a 700-mile trek during a famine, to a clandestine airstrip in Sudan. Many died en route, but the survivors were spirited to Israel. News reports of the exodus led Sudan to shut down the operation, though Jews continued to escape.

Six years later, as the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia was about to fall to guerrillas in 1991, Israel launched a spectacular 36-hour airlift of the remaining 15,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa. One plane made the Guinness Book of Records with the largest human cargo in history: 1,086 people.

``I had been a year in Addis waiting,'' says Maru, a former schoolteacher now living and studying in the Givat Hamatos immigrant colony in Jerusalem who asked that his full name not be published. ``When I heard that the planes were coming, I went straight to my apartment and took my wife and children, my sister and brother. I left the key with the landlord, and all our things stayed behind.''

Adapting in Israel

At Givat Hamatos, and at dozens of other refugee settlements around Israel, the formerly rural Ethiopians struggle to adapt to a modern society that has welcomed them as long-lost brothers - but not without major setbacks.

Although Israel's government decreed 20 years ago that the Ethiopian Jews - they call themselves Beta Israel - are Jewish enough to be granted automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, the Orthodox rabbinate has asked Ethiopians to take a symbolic ritual bath to become 100 percent Jewish - something the Ethiopians have largely refused to do.

The only Israeli rabbi who accepts them as 100 percent Jews, and will perform their marriages, Rabbi David Chelouche, recently announced his retirement. Since there is no secular marriage in Israel, this leaves the Ethiopians in marital limbo.

Meanwhile, a dozen Ethiopian men are studying to become rabbis while the traditional Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders, or Kessim, remain marginalized. The main problem is that the Ethiopians had no contact with the Jewish community in the past 1,500 years, during which the complex code of Jewish law - Halakha - was drawn up.

For example, the Ethiopians follow the simple instruction in the five books of Moses not to boil a baby goat in its mother's milk. But the rest of the world's Orthodox Jews follow complex kosher laws to separate all dairy and meat products.

While the Ethiopians largely have been willing to accept the laws of Halakha, they feel they should be considered Jewish without the ritual bath. News reports and researchers tell of some prejudice against the Ethiopians - the worst from their fellow immigrants in absorption centers: Russian Jews, who sometimes harbor strongly antiblack sentiments.

Israeli stereotypes

Sociologist Gadi Ben-Ezer says, in a recent book in Hebrew, that the rare cases of Ethiopians being blocked from schools or housing, or even attacked, are overshadowed by many cases of Israelis assuming the Ethiopians have ``come down from the trees'' and are simply primitive people who should be glad to abandon their culture in favor of modern Israeli values.

Such a rush to culturally absorb immigrants was seen as a disastrous mistake when it was pushed on immigrants from Yemen, Morocco, and elsewhere in the 1950s, because it destroyed the people's self-image, Mr. Ben-Ezer says.

But history seems to be repeating itself. Nearly all Ethiopian children leave home at age 12 to live in Youth Aliyah Village schools where they rapidly absorb Hebrew language and culture. When the children return home for visits, they often are ashamed of their parents' native clothing and habits, dislike the food, and want to get away as fast as possible.

``If the children stay at home, the cultural-technological gap will remain, and you'll create the ghetto,'' says an offical with the Jewish Agency, a non-governmental organization that sponsors immigration and development. ``When we check, the kids do well, especially when they go to the Army'' as do all Israeli boys and girls at age 18. ``Many go on to college and become computer whizzes. If they stayed home, many - especially the females - would get no education.''

Maru says it would be better to keep the families intact and offer counseling to Ethiopian parents so they learn how to help their children become educated. Instead, the decision seems to have been made to abandon the ``desert generation'' that grew up in Ethiopia.

``People worked hard in Ethiopia,'' says Addisu Messele, who came from Ethiopia in 1980 and founded the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization. ``Here we are happy. We have health, education, our own way of life, transportation - things we did not have in Ethiopia'' where Jews were relegated to the lower classes under Christian Amharic and Tigray overlords.

Lost tribe

Legend says the Ethiopian Jews descended from a union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in the 9th century BC. Other theories say they came from Yemen or may be the lost tribe of Dan. Early Ethiopian rulers were Jewish until the spread of Christianity displaced them between the first and third century AD, according to Ethiopian historian Belai Giday's book ``Ethiopian Civilization.''

The Jews fled to the highlands of Gonder and, in the 9th century, led by Queen Yodit, they swept back into power for a brief period. After that they declined, and by this century were relegated to potters and blacksmiths - crafts despised as ``devil's work'' by Christian Ethiopians - and weavers.

Although almost all Jews have already migrated from Ethiopia, perhaps a few hundred more - some intermarried with non-Jews - continue to leave each year.

Some Ethiopians say they expected Israel to be a quasi-mythical land of milk and honey. ``In Ethiopia, I thought that when I got to Israel I'd get food and money with no work,'' says one woman in Givat Hamatos in fluent Hebrew. ``Now I know that if you don't work, you get no money.''

Around her, friends and relatives nodded while their children babbled to each other in Hebrew. ``No one wants to go back,'' says one young man. ``There is nothing left there.''

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