Eleven years ago, I drove through the orderly small compound near the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, where soon-to-be immigrants to Israel prepared for their journey to a new homeland. “Look at that — we’re importing a social time bomb,” said my guide, a senior Jewish Agency official.
Like nearly all his colleagues, he was highly critical of the politics and lobbying that had led to the decision to facilitate the immigration of thousands of members of the Falashmura to Israel.
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From his perspective, the Falashmura — unlike the Beta Israel community of Ethiopian Jews that had been flown to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in the 1980s and ’90s — were not eligible for aliyah as they were the descendants of Christians, with a tenuous claim to Jewish roots. Many of the leaders of the Ethiopian community already in Israel were of the same opinion.
But as a veteran of the Agency, he was doing his job to the best of his capabilities. The State of Israel had decided that they were to become Israeli citizens, and he was there to make sure it happened. As we watched the group of 60 men, women and children loading their belongings onto the bus that would take them later that night to the airport, his ire was directed elsewhere.
The immense resources expended; the human sacrifice of thousands who walked to landing strips (many dying along the way); the professionalism of Israeli air force pilots, Mossad agents and shlichim (emissaries) of the Jewish Agency, along with other organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee, that went into the at-first secret operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel — all have been rightly celebrated. Israeli politicians and Jewish-American philanthropists were waiting to greet them at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Books have been written, films produced. New York Times columnist William Safire memorably wrote in 1985, after details of Operation Moses emerged: “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought into a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.”
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How noble — and yet how far from the mundane reality of an isolated immigrant community facing the difficulties, indignities, and both casual and systematic racism of daily life in Israel.
It’s partly that very Israeli syndrome of excellence at peaks and stagnation in the troughs. The Jewish Agency official was frustrated at knowing the new immigrants would be met upon arrival by social systems without the vision and resources to deal with the generations-long challenge of integrating them into Israeli society.
It mirrors the experience of Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs developing cutting-edge technology for autonomous vehicles and advanced health care, yet themselves spend hours in traffic jams due to dilapidated transport systems or visit their relatives lying in the waiting rooms and corridors of understaffed hospitals.
Every wave of immigration to Israel has been met with the same story: Ceremonies and politicians’ speeches at the airport, followed by the bleakness of outlying towns and cramped underprivileged neighborhoods.
But while immigrants from other parts of the world usually arrived with more tools to eventually succeed in Israeli society — and if not them, their children — and were part of larger communities with more political influence, there was nothing comparable to the Ethiopian aliyah.
The lack of preparation for a community arriving from a hunger-stricken, agrarian African country wasn’t just a logistical and bureaucratic failure. It was also a conceptual failure, for which Israel has no excuse: It should have learned from the experience of the large waves of immigration from North Africa and the Middle East in the ’50s that racism is a stronger force than any fanciful notion of “absorbing” new immigrants. Also, that black-skinned Israelis would never be treated as equals just because Israelis originally rejoiced at their arrival and, in May 1991 — in the days following Operation Solomon — rushed in their thousands to absorption centers to volunteer and donate money, clothes and appliances.
The conceit, both of Israelis and many Diaspora Jews, that Israel was engaging in a noble venture by bringing in thousands of black people should have been obvious. But no one thought it necessary to inform the rabbinical authorities, who did everything to humiliate the new citizens by imposing “conversion” obligations on them. Or the bureaucrats in the medical system who threw out their blood donations. And, of course, the police, whose commissioner as recently as three years ago told lawyers that it was “only natural” for his officers to be more suspicious of black citizens.
The illusion that, by “bringing” the Ethiopians to Israel, we had somehow proved that our society was color-blind was ridiculous to begin with. But it was easy enough to maintain when the 150,000 members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community lived quietly in low-income neighborhoods in small, out-of-the-way towns.
Now that the attitude of the police has become impossible to ignore and the violence has blown up in our faces in recent days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rushing to convene his fake “ministerial committee to advance the integration into Israeli society of Israeli citizens of Ethiopian origin.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s proxies have taken to the airwaves and social media to denounce “leftist organizations” for “inciting the violence.”
The story of Ethiopian aliyah may be unique in the annals of emigration, anywhere in the world. But the reality of life as immigrants with a different skin color was drearily predictable — and yet no one acted to defuse the social time bomb.