"It's not surprising that American Jews are involved in Atid Echad. American Jews have a long history of helping Ethiopian Jews," says Avraham Neguise, leader of the Ethiopian political party, Atid Echad (One Future). That explains the high proportion of English-speaking activists in his party, which has given the No. 3 slot on its Knesset slate to an American-Israeli who currently lives in Boston.
"In the 1980s, many of the advocacy groups for Ethiopian Jewry were based in the United States and they were successful in changing Israeli policy," Neguise said. "That same tradition continues now."
Headed by Neguise, Atid Echad is aiming to bring the marginalized Ethiopian community into the very center of Israeli society. "The situation with our youth is deteriorating, 70 percent of our community lives under the poverty line and 55 percent are unemployed. I'm very concerned about what will happen and it's time that the community took its future and its fate into its own hands," he said.
Of the party's six top positions, half are held by Ethiopian-Israelis and the other half by non-Ethiopian activists. Argentinean-born Rabbi Yechezkel Stelzer is No. 2 on the list, followed by U.S.-born Yosef Israel Abramowitz, former head of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) and president of Jewish Family & Life, a Boston-based non-profit organization. The party's No. 5 is U.S.-born Michael Freund, founder and chair of Shavei Israel, an organization that seeks to return "lost Jews," while their nos. 8 and 9, Linda Eliasoff and Michael Humphries, were also born in the U.S. Atid Echad's seventh slot, meanwhile, is occupied by Yishai Fleisher, who was born in Israel, but raised and educated in the U.S.
"The Ethiopian community needs more than just sympathy - it needs representation in the places where decisions are made," said New York-born volunteer Ricki Lieberman.
According to the polls, Atid Echad is not expected to pass the voting threshold, but party activists insist that results on Election Day will prove otherwise. By their estimate, the community numbers some 110,000 people, of whom about 75,000 are eligible to vote. This, coupled with some support from the wider Israeli population, will push the party into the Knesset, they say.
"My dream," Neguise said, "is that our children will fill the country's universities and colleges, and not just the jails."
The list's No. 3, Abramowitz, who is listed in the Forward's list of top 50 Jewish leaders, has been actively involved with Ethiopian Jewry since 1981. He first met Neguise while heading WUJS more than 15 years ago and in 1998, the two traveled together to visit Jewish communities in Ethiopia.
"To me, Avraham [Neguise] has always been a hero of the Jewish people," Abramowitz said in a telephone interview from Boston. "This is going to be the first election in Jewish history where the Ethiopian Jewish community is going to flex its political muscles."
Abramowitz, 41, was born in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 1969. The family returned to America after a few years, but Abramowitz again moved to Israel while heading WUJS from 1987-1990.
Atid Echad is an attractive option for the disenchanted voter, he said. "A lot of Israelis either won't vote or will be holding their noses in disgust when they go to the polls. Atid Echad is a realization of some of the most compelling dreams that we as a people have."
Although Abramowitz was planning to be in Israel in the weeks before the election, a long-awaited adoption came through just two weeks ago.
Abramowitz says he has already made plans to move to Israel with his wife and five children, two of whom were adopted in Ethiopia. "I'm very optimistic that history will be made on March 28," he said.