For Ethiopia's Jews, a Long Journey Is Over, a New One Begins

Ahead of the last Falashmura flight, Anshel Pfeffer joins new immigrants on their way to Israel. A first report in a series examining three decades of Ethiopian Aliyah.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Friday, last week, 9 A.M., Jewish Agency Absorption Center, Kiryat Gat

For Melkamu and Wotetie Getnet and their two children, the journey ends in a one-bedroom apartment in the Kiryat Gat absorption center. Between metal-frame beds, a new ‘fridge and kettle, they lay down the two suitcases containing all their possessions. A four-hour flight, following three days on the bus from Gondar to Addis Ababa − a journey that began two years ago, leaving the village where they were born, in the hope of being allowed to emigrate to Israel.

Soon they will be taken to the post office to sign up for health insurance. The beginning of a new journey into Israeli society. For the parents, in their 40s, an exhausting attempt to acclimate to a new environment, a strange language and a job market with demands they may not be equipped to meet. For two years they will mainly study Hebrew, look for housing and undergo a conversion process ‏(as Falashmura, they are not recognized as Jews, only as descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, and thus full conversion is a condition for permanent citizenship‏).

Melkamu will seek a job, but without formal education or experience in construction or subsistence farming, what opportunities will he have? Wotetie has never had a job. When asked to sign for the equipment , Wotetie insists on signing her name in the Hebrew letters she learned in Gondar. A small smile of success.

Thirteen-year-old Hudit and Mokach, 7, are embarking on their own journey. The first morning in Israel and they already seem different from their parents − walking about the center’s corridors with confidence, trying out their basic Hebrew. Hudit has located the clubroom, with its television. In the coming years they will likely serve as Melkamu and Wotetie’s interpreters, navigating the Israeli thicket for them. Things won’t be easy for them either; they will face obstacles like other Ethiopian-born youths, but they have a chance of making it.

Falashmura Community Center, Gondar, Northern Ethiopia.
Young olim at an absorption center. Often children serve as their parents' interpreters.
Jewish Agency Absorption Center, Kiryat Gat.
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Falashmura Community Center, Gondar, Northern Ethiopia.Credit: Moshik Brin
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Young olim at an absorption center. Often children serve as their parents' interpreters. Credit: Moshik Brin
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Jewish Agency Absorption Center, Kiryat Gat.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

For Melkamu and Wotetie, the morning of their arrival − when they exchanged a tiny mud hut for a fifth-floor apartment with running water and electricity, and cannot yet define what they left behind − may yet prove to have been the high point of their journey.

Wednesday, two days earlier, 8:30 A.M., Falashmura Community Center, Gondar, Northern Ethiopia

Fewer children have arrived today at the community center’s kindergarten. Early yesterday morning, the next-to-last group of families left for Israel. Before they departed, they all made together a banner with Israeli and Ethiopian flags, a large sun and the words of “Hatikva.” One child wrote in Hebrew “ani lehathil” ‏(“I to begin”‏) and his name: Gatena. On the wall nearby, a letter with 13 names of the last people to receive permission to enter Israel from the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem. They will join the last group leaving here next month.

The 10 remaining children are lustily singing Hebrew nursery rhymes, but their teacher, Gitacho Tekaba, is finding it hard to show much enthusiasm. He was born in Gondar 24 years ago and he teaches the 3-year-olds Hebrew before their emigration, but has himself been turned down by the Interior Minister . Like hundreds of other Falashmura, he doesn’t know if he will ever be allowed to emigrate to Israel. At the end of August, organized aliyah from Ethiopia will end and the Jewish Agency facilities will close.

“I have lived here between despair and hope, not doing anything with my life,” Tekaba says bitterly. He will teach for another month and then look for a new job.

In another room, two instructors from Israel, one a veteran Ethiopian immigrant, are teaching a room full of silent women wrapped in white scarves basic hygiene, plus how to use deodorant and conditioner and when best to shower children. It is part of a 320-hour pre-emigration course, made up of 200 hours of Judaism, 100 hours of Hebrew and 20 hours of “life skills,” anything from showering to the Israeli school system.

Tzofia Foichtwanger, who runs the courses in Gondar, says that “very few questions are about employment and money. They all assume their financial situation will improve just by moving to Israel. We get a lot of questions from men about gender relationships. They have heard that in Israel a wife can complain if her husband hits her, and think it is a country ruled by women. We try to explain that the law protects everyone, but many are afraid of losing their status as head of the family.”

Morah Ohana , one of the instructors, says she gets asked a lot about racism in Israel.

Tuesday, 1 A.M., Jewish Agency offices, Gondar

There is a very brief hiatus: Hours earlier, 75 new emigrants left on buses for Addis Ababa, and the preparations are about to begin for the last big push: two chartered flights in late August with the 400 remaining Falashmura, bringing to an end organized aliyah from Ethiopia.

The current phase began in November 2010, when the Netanyahu government overturned an earlier decision to end Falashmura emigration. The government capitulated to a public lobby backed by Jewish American donors, agreeing to examine a list of more than 8,000 more applicants . An agreement was reached with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry ‏(NACOEJ‏), which had originally built the compound for the Falashmura in Gondar, that the facilities would be handed over to the Jewish Agency, which would close them down once all those found eligible – nearly 7,000 – had left for Israel.

Previous Agency representatives in Ethiopia were only responsible for transporting the new immigrants to Israel, but Asher Fantehon Siyum, the first Ethiopian-born shaliah ‏(emissary‏), was also given responsibility for their welfare while they were living in Gondar. Siyum smiles ruefully when he recalls how old hands at the Agency said that an Ethiopian-Israeli would not withstand the pressure from the families demanding their relatives be allowed in.

He answers yet another phone call. “Everyone calls me or reaches me on Facebook, asking, what about my sister or my mother. For them I represent the State of Israel,” he says.

The Interior Ministry decides who will become an Israeli citizen; Siyum’s job is to take care of those authorized for aliyah, but a large portion of his time is taken up dealing with those who have been turned down and with the anger of their families in Israel: “I am totally transparent and clear with them. I don’t want anyone to have illusions. There is a government decision and I am carrying it out.”

Siyum has lived in Gondar with his wife and two sons since January 2011; in his time there, he has prepared and flown out nearly 7,000 Falashmura. At the same time, he has reorganized the community center, school and food programs, which employ 160 people, having learned from mistakes made over the years, as well as his own experience as an absorption center director and a boy who emigrated at the age of 12, via Sudan, in 1984. He is fully aware of his double status as both the state’s representative and as an Ethiopian-Israeli who “made it,” and delivers what he calls “community talks” every two weeks to people waiting to immigrate: “I tell them that just as when they lived in their villages, they didn’t need anyone telling them when to sow or to harvest, they don’t need to be told what to do in Israel. It’s not beyond them. With a bit of help and faith in yourselves, you will know. They have to believe they can control their lives and not begin to feel like refugees.”

But preparing the new immigrants for what awaits them often seems like the easier part. Dealing with 1,900 Falashmura who have been turned down after not fitting the set criteria of being “descended from Jews on their mother’s side” is more difficult. Among those staying behind are many of the Jewish Agency’s local employees − teachers, guards and kitchen staff who in recent weeks have been handed lay-off notices.

“What can we do? We never said we would stay here forever or solve Ethiopia’s employment problems,” says Siyum. “Everyone says they have family in Israel, so why can’t they come? I explain that Beta Israel [the Ethiopian Jewish community] stuck to its roots and made it to Israel. Now we are giving a chance to the descendants [of Falashmura, as Jews who converted to Christianity], who would not normally be eligible for citizenship [according to the Law of Return]. They are actually getting preferential treatment.”

Worke Germai, who has worked at the community center teaching Jewish customs is not convinced about this. The Interior Ministry turned her down, and now she is also about to lose her job.

“If I had no connection to the Jewish people, why did they allow my mother to go to Israel?” she asks. “Even if I cannot emigrate soon, I will cling to my Jewishness. I believe in God who will one day take me to Eretz Israel.”

Thursday, 6 P.M., JDC Transit House, Addis Ababa

After three days on the road from Gondar, the 75 new olim are to fly out tonight. Standing in silent excitement in the little courtyard of the small hostel operated by the Jewish Distribution Committee and financed by the New York Federation, the woman are all in festive white, while the men and children are in new donated clothes: a mixed wardrobe of jeans, sport jackets and tailored suits. A few youngsters with fashion sense, including Hudit Getnet in green pants and a purple top, look just like their Israeli counterparts.

Each immigrant is allocated 45 kilograms, but they don’t seem to have a problem with the limit. Every family makes due with two suitcases: They are all traveling to Israel with a megogo, an electric plate used for baking traditional injera bread, and a colorful straw basket for storing the injera, both newly purchased in Addis. As the sun sets, they begin walking in a long column down the rocky path toward the main road, nearly sinking in the mud, surrounded by Kalashnikov-toting police officers. Asher Siyum, who is leading the column, feels the drama. “Exodus,” he smiles.

In the past, each group was sent directly to the local airport, but one of Siyum’s initiatives was an intermediate stop at the Israeli Embassy compound.

“This is the place from where Operation Solomon was directed,” he tells them, in an attempt to kindle Zionist pride. He doesn’t mention the fact that in 1991, during that airlift, when Falashmura tried to board the planes with members of the Beta Israel community, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave an order not to allow them on. His reason? Their forefathers had converted to Christianity and abandoned their Jewish brethren.

Before they leave the embassy, Siyum tells them, “You are achieving your first objective today, reaching Israel. Your next objective is to become part of Israeli society. Like in Ethiopia, also in Israel, whomever reaps will sow, it is all up to you.” He then puts on a kippa and recites the “Shehechayanu” blessing, used on special occasions. Then it’s the turn of the security man to take over: “Don’t talk, don’t touch anyone on the way to the plane, don’t accept any packages, just hold hands.”

They file silently in a long line from the buses to the terminal where they wait in a secluded area for the flight.

Friday, 3 A.M., Ben-Gurion International Airport

As they step off the first flight of their lives, the men and a few of the women bend down to kiss the tarmac. It’s unclear who told them this was the custom. Separated from the rest of the passengers on their scheduled flight, they are taken to an immigrant absorption hall in the old terminal. The brief excitement of arrival is replaced by sterile formality. Waiting around small tables, the mothers are taken to change a first diaper in their new homeland, and each couple is called into a booth, where women with slight Russian accents are waiting with interpreters.

On the wall of each booth are the symbol of the state and photos of the president and the prime minister. The immigrants are issued grayish-orange temporary resident cards ‏(those entering under the Law of Return receive a standard blue ID card‏), the first installment of their absorption stipend, and a local SIM card so they can use their Ethiopian mobile phones to call relatives.

The fatigue and the new surroundings are oppressive, and the resultant silence is broken only when yet another couple is called into a booth. Those waiting can watch a muted television showing scenes of Israel, followed by a silent greeting from Absorption Minister Sofa Landver ‏(who last year angrily said to Ethiopian-Israeli activists, “You should say thank you for what you have received.”‏)

The new olim, perhaps overwhelmed by the experiences of the last four days, find it hard to describe their feelings. Those who have managed to activate their cell-phones have already spoken with family members waiting in the arrivals hall. But the absorption process drags on. At 5 A.M., a cleaner comes along and removes the barely touched sandwiches and fruit from the tables. Nearly there, they smile politely, careful not to complain but are anxious to meet brothers and sisters they have not seen for years.

One of the Absorption Ministry staffers tries to cheer things up. “It’s not true that there is racism or discrimination here,” she says without being asked about the subject. “We treat them very nicely.”

Falashmura leaving Gondar.Credit: Moshik Brin

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