Israelis Struggle To Make a Home For Ethiopian Jews

Is Zionism only a white, European concept?

IT was called Operation Solomon: the secret airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from a land torn by civil war and poverty to the Promised Land.

That was in May 1991, hours before the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, fell to antigovernment rebels.

The airlifted Ethiopian Jews joined about 8,000 others already in Israel who had walked across Sudan's desert before being rescued in Operation Moses in the 1980s. It was a dream come true for a people who lived as Jews in isolation for millennia without relinquishing the dream of a ''return to Zion.''

But the 56,000 Ethiopian Jews here have found that the realities of modern Israel are far removed from that dream.

Israeli social workers say that the Ethiopians are in danger of becoming a permanent underclass in a country battling to reconcile the ideology of Zionism - the establishment and support of a Jewish state - with the demands of a thriving modern society.

After a decade in Israel, most of the Ethiopian Jews find themselves at the bottom of the social and economic ladder despite massive government aid that far exceeds that distributed to other immigrant communities, such as the Russians.

Tom Segev, a social historian who has written a critique of the process of integration into Israeli society, sees a divide within Zionism. ''Yes, there is some racism, as there is anywhere,'' Mr. Segev says. ''But it is also true that Israeli ideology, the Zionist elite, is based on a distinctly white, European self-image.''

Many Ethiopian immigrants would agree. ''Most Israelis know nothing about my culture,'' says Shula Mula, a student at the Hebrew University. ''They make me feel that if I am not like them, then I am not as good, even though I, too, am a student at the university.''

The violent riots between Ethiopian Jews and Israeli police outside the prime minister's office Jan. 28, which left 60 protesters and police injured, were an eruption of anger that had been building for several years.

The final catalyst was the revelation three weeks ago that the country's blood banks were routinely discarding most of the blood donated by Ethiopians, because it was more likely to be infected by the HIV virus.

The controversy over the blood donors strikes at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. One of the cardinal tenets of Judaism is solidarity with the group. ''It's not a political subject. It touches on the very roots of Jewish history,'' Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said in apology.

The Ethiopian Jews were revealed to the world by Joseph Halevy, a French Jewish scholar in 1867, but their precise origin remains the subject of debate.

The revelations about the blood banks have brought soul-searching by Israelis: TV talk shows, government commissions, and endless debates.

The Israeli government responded promptly to the crisis by distancing itself from the blood bank decision, apologizing to the Ethiopian immigrants and appointing a commission of inquiry into the affair.

Run-down camps lack amenities

Ms. Mula, the Ethiopian immigrant student, took the Monitor on a tour of the Givat Hamatos resettlement camp, where Ethiopians live in cramped conditions in trailer homes. The run-down camp lacks trees, greenery, and recreational facilities.

She says young Ethiopian Jews are resisting taking on a broader Israeli identity.

''They can't become Israelis, because society doesn't let them in. So they try to become something else, something dreamlike that they see on MTV,'' she says.

Only 7 percent of Ethiopian immigrants who graduated from high school last year received a matriculation certificate - the key to getting into good Army units and university. More than 60 percent of the overall population receives this certificate.

More than 700 teenagers have dropped out of school. Many of them live on the streets and engage in substance abuse and petty crimes.

Ethiopians often have difficulty integrating in the Army, which is considered Israel's melting pot. ''The Army just doesn't understand the Ethiopian soldier at all,'' says Shlomo Mula, a recently discharged officer from Ethiopia. ''We come to the Army believing that this is our chance. Then it fails us.'' Israel's Army is working to improve the situation for Ethiopian immigrants. Those who now are assigned to elite units usually do well.

Aris Rosenberg, spokesman for the Absorption Ministry, which is responsible for integration of immigrants, told the Monitor that 85 percent of the 3,720 trailer-park families who participated in a program begun in May 1993 had either purchased homes or moved into public housing by last December.

''There has never been such a colossal effort to absorb immigrants,'' says Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban. ''I regard it as a test of honor for Israel. But it will take more than one year and more than a generation.''

In an attempt to encourage Ethiopian immigrants to move out of the bleak ''temporary'' trailer parks in which they were housed, the Absorption Ministry offered increased benefits and preferential mortgage terms.

In Israel's runaway real estate market, however, even these mortgages were inadequate to purchase an apartment in any but the most run-down neighborhoods.

Two-thirds of the Ethiopians are now in some of Israel's worst urban slums. And the children often attend de facto segregated schools.

Believing that Ethiopian teenagers who grew up away from their parents would integrate better, officials referred 80 percent of them to boarding schools hitherto reserved for problem students. But a ministry spokesman acknowledges that the program didn't work and says that 95 percent of Ethiopian children will attend integrated classes this year. Routine referrals to boarding schools have been stopped, the spokesman adds.

The most urgent need could be to heal the wounded self-respect of Israel's Ethiopian Jews.

''Israelis tell me that I am so much better off than I was in Ethiopia,'' says Shula Mula. ''In Ethiopia, I didn't always have enough to eat, my father was a barefoot farmer, and I could neither read nor write. But I did not feel humiliated because I lived like everyone else.

''Here, Israelis act as though they are superior to me. We came to Israel to be Jews; many of us died on the way. I think we are heroes, but here I feel humiliated.''

''We have trampled their honor'

So could it all be as simple as acceptance and respect?

''We have failed because we have not been able to accept a culture different than ours,'' says Kobi Friedman, a social scientist who worked with the Jews in Ethiopia prior to their immigration. ''Respect and honor are more important than life itself, and we have trampled their honor.''

But there are also many success stories that testify to the basic unity of the Jewish people despite differences in race, culture, and history. Smuel Yilma's family walked 400 miles across the Sudanese desert to freedom in Israel. He went on to become a decorated captain in the Israeli paratroopers and now works on development projects for unemployed Ethiopian youths.

Shula Mula still cries when she recalls that her mother was determined to go to Israel. But her father couldn't leave their rural village and his cows. All Shula Mula remembers of the trip is incessant walking, constant hunger and thirst, and a fear of bandits and wild animals.

''We didn't really know the way. We knew that we would suffer. We knew that some of us would die. We only knew that we were going to Zion and that was our destiny,'' says Shula Mula, who was 12 when she made the journey.

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