Parashat Behar: What is Freedom?
Karen Kaufman Perlman is an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program in Los Angeles and currently a resident of San Francisco. She is on the Boards of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Community Center, and the Jewish Vocational Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling on a UJC boutique mission to Ethiopia and Israel, along with 13 others from North America. They called it the “last” UJC Mission to Ethiopia, as the immigration is coming to an end. The Israeli Government has said they are done. The Ethiopian Government finds it all a bit embarrassing. There are over 100,000 Ethiopians in Israel already, and their absorption has been extremely challenging, way more complicated than any other immigrant group who has ever arrived in Israel.
The flight from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa was only 4 hours and from Addis to Gondar, another 1.5 hours, but it felt like we went back 500 years in time. In the villages where the Jews formerly lived, the tiny homes are made of sticks and mud, with dirt floors. There is no electricity or running water. The poverty is astounding and malnutrition and disease are the norm. The synagogues (very simple buildings of stone or stucco with dirt floors) are easily identifiable by the stars of David. The conditions under which this community lived before they began their treks to the Sudan in the late 70s and 80s and then to Addis Ababa in the late 80s and 90s were terrible. The conditions they lived in after they left their villages, for the promise of getting to the holy land, were even worse.
The Jews of Ethiopia, the “falashas” as they were called in Ethiopia (which means “outsider” in Amharic, a name they find derogatory) are people of incredible faith. They wanted nothing more than to get to Jerusalem. Their great-great-grandfathers and beyond, dreamed of some day getting back to Jerusalem. After several thousand years of separation from the rest of the world Jewish community, they still manage to observe Jewish customs to the letter of the law and still read the same Torah portion as the rest of us weekly.
The cost these people paid to fulfill their dreams was enormous. Many families were torn apart, many people died of starvation and disease; they were subjected to rape, theft and imprisonment. And yet they endured.
Upon arrival in Israel, it is like fast-forwarding hundreds of years in time to a very modern society. They are expected to learn Hebrew (70% of Ethiopians are illiterate in Amharic), use indoor cooking equipment, toilets, go to banks, and learn new vocational skills. Then, after 2 years in an absorption center, they are expected to
become productive Israeli citizens. As you can imagine, the success stories (and there are many), are the exception, not the rule.
We had the honor of traveling back to Israel with 60 new Olim on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that left Addis at 2:00 a.m. It is disorienting enough to travel overnight on a 4-hour flight, but imagine what it must be like for the Ethiopian Olim. (The escalator in the airport had been described to them in advance as “the magic stairs,” so as not to startle them when they had to ride it.) And yet, they were calm (even the small children did not cry or fuss). Life is much slower in Ethiopia, so sitting around waiting for hours in the airports was not a burden. For many, they had abandoned their lives in their villages many years before, some as many as 9 or 10 years, in the hopes of being brought to Israel. They were used to waiting and waiting and waiting. When we landed at Ben Gurion airport, they were all given plastic Israeli flags and a few of the Olim kissed the ground, but for the most part, everyone was just calm. Perhaps it was just a great sense of relief that they finally made it to Israel. Perhaps it was an uncertainty of the unknown. Perhaps it was the belief that God brought them to this day.
After departing from these 60 Olim, who will be dispersed around the country to one of the 33 absorption centers, we had the opportunity to visit absorption centers and schools in development communities that were serving Ethiopian Olim who had arrived months earlier.
After having seen where this community came from, I could better understand the enormous challenges they face in integrating into Israeli society. Aside from the differences between a very archaic agrarian society and a modern technology hub, the cultural differences are vast, not to mention the years of trauma, loss and hardship. In Ethiopia, all of the focus is on the parents and respecting your elders. We, on the other hand, are completely centered on our children and trying to ensure the next generation does better than the one before. In Ethiopia, the children don’t look their father in the eye when addressing him. When they go for their school assessments in Israel and won’t look the teachers in the eye, these children are sometime mistakenly put in a “slow” class. The high school matriculation rate in the Ethiopian community in Israel is lower than 20%. Currently, over 70% of the Ethiopians in Israel live under the poverty line.
Sadly, I believe that the olim who arrive as adults, for the most part, are a “lost generation.” We should endeavor to make their lives as comfortable and dignified as possible. With the next generation, and the generations to come, however, we must ensure they are fully integrated into Israeli society. This means supplemental academic and social education, additional vocational training, equal opportunity (most especially for those living in the fringe areas of the country in development towns), and I could go on. It is not that the government has not put enough resources towards this community; it has. It is just a much greater challenge than any other immigrant community before them. And on top of it all, they have dark skin and yes, there is racism in our beloved Israel.
The Ethiopians in Israel have been taken out of horrendous conditions where they were afraid to be identified as Jews, to better conditions where they are free to be Jews. It is the first time in history that black Africans have been taken out of their country into freedom, and not into slavery. This experience made me extremely proud to be a Jew and to be a member of the community that has been involved in this remarkable exodus over the last 30 years. It also made me realize that it is world Jewry’s responsibility to ensure that this community fully integrates into Israeli society over the next several generations, and does not become a permanent underclass.
The Ethiopian Israeli story is still just beginning. Only when this community has achieved economic, racial and educational equality, will they truly know freedom.