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Ethiopian Jews act out their journey to Israel

'Roots Theater’ gives voice to the women of the epic flight.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondet / September 18, 2008

From desert caravan to the stage: Hava Almu left Ethiopia for Israel as a 12-year-old. She and other Ethiopian Jewish women act in play about their lives on stage in Israel.

Danna Harman


Beit Shean, Israel

Beit Shean, Israel

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She spent the first few days weaving in and out of the crowd, ducking here, hiding there. By the time her parents, back home in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, realized their 12-year-old-daughter had joined the caravan of Jews leaving for Israel, she was far away in the Sudanese desert.

Hava Almu spent 12 days and nights crossing Sudan on foot, in extreme conditions, and a year in a squalid refugee camp outside Khartoum, before she was airlifted to a new life in Israel.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s close to 100,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought here as part of major operations – code-named “Moses” and “Solomon” – in line with Israel’s law of return which guarantees citizenship for all Jews. Their immigration is often depicted as a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of gathering all Jews to Zion, and their arrival was accompanied by excitement and celebration. But their journey has not been simple.

Over 4,000 of them died en route. And many of these immigrants, who came from remote, poor villages, have since struggled to adapt to the industrialized, multiethnic society that adopted them.
Even today, 23 years later, in her Beit Shean home, where she and her policeman husband are raising a brood of Hebrew-blabbering children, the anxieties of that journey out of Africa, the years of longing for her family, and the difficulties of taking first steps in Israel haunt Ms. Almu.

They haunt her, but she’d never spoken of them – until the day six years ago that Talia Argaman came along and opened a free women’s drama class at the local community center. “In our community you keep things in the belly,” Almu had explained patiently to Ms. Argaman, a newly minted community social worker from a nearby kibbutz in the Jordan Valley.

But that was then.

Now, the little drama club has turned into a unique amateur Ethiopian women’s theater troupe – the “Roots Theater” — that performs a play about that journey to Israel and the absorption process at small venues around the country. It gives audiences a rare peek into the often closed world of the Ethiopian community here and has also given the women of the troupe an improved sense of self.

“I want people to come out of the play knowing that we made real efforts to come here,” says Almu today, fixing her rhinestone-decorated baseball cap and kicking off her strappy gold sandals. “Most Israelis don’t understand this. It’s not like we came here because we had nothing in Ethiopia and it’s not like we were just airlifted out and that’s that.”

“We are often portrayed as people who were so poor and gentle that we would have gone anywhere. But it’s not true. We did this because we yearned for this country our whole lives and because we belong here in the land of our forefathers.”

• • •

This summer, the Israeli government announced it was ending large-scale immigration from Ethiopia and that all further requests would be considered case by case. This policy leaves an estimated 8,500 so-called Falash Mura – Ethiopians who claim Jewish roots, the majority of whom have family in Israel – still clamoring for their collective right to immigrate.

The decision and the subsequent media coverage of the Falash Mura’s demands to be brought to Israel have reignited a sober public discussion here of this immigrant group and their complex integration.

Almost 65 percent of the community are on some kind of welfare assistance, according to a June report of the State Comptroller’s Office, And, while Ethiopians make up only 1.5 percent of the population, 11 percent of those in battered women’s shelters are Ethiopian. Last year, five of the 16 women murdered in domestic disputes were Ethiopian immigrants. Drug and alcohol problems among these immigrants are growing, too.