Ethiopian Jews Fight for A Brighter Future

by | Sep 5, 2016

Jerusalem, Israel — Walking through the streets of the old city in Jerusalem, it is easy to get lost. Buildings, fashioned from limestone, have been built on top of and within each other for centuries. At night musicians line the streets; modern restaurants and ice cream shops huddle next to ancient synagogues and markets.

But some places lie beyond the scope of tourist maps. Tucked far and deep into the maze of twisting alleyways, the Ethiopian restaurant Shegar is just such a place. Like the Israeli Ethiopian community in Israel it comes from, it is hidden from view.

Ethiopian Jew Asher Seyum discusses his journey and struggles from Ethiopia to Israel. Josh Futtersak/CUNY J

The lighted sign for Shegar is the light at the end of the tunnel that tells a visitor her searching was not a waste. Waiting in the restaurant is 35-year-old Mattan Malada, born in Ethiopia. Mattan sits among Ethiopian art and the pungent scent of freshly cooked injera, a type of bread that is a staple of the Ethiopian diet.

Small in stature, well dressed and soft spoken, Mattan might blend well into any community. Any community besides this one — his adopted homeland of Israel.

In the early 1990s Ethiopia was at the brutal conclusion of a civil war and famine that would claim the lives of more than one million people, including Mattan’s parents.

The large community of Jews that remained in Ethiopia faced persecution and death as chaos ensued.

Operation Solomon made Mattan’s dream a reality. In May of 1991, a secret and daring Israeli rescue airlifted to Israel in 36 hours over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who had been driven as refugees into neighboring Sudan. Because Sudan had never recognized Israel as a state, by secretly landing a plane inside the country, the crew risked, at best, arrest, at worst, an attack.

Once the operation proved a success, the gates to Israel were opened and have not closed since.

Mattan was just 10 years old, the youngest of his brothers, but he says he knew, like many Ethiopian Jews, that he had to begin his journey to Jerusalem. Like most Jews in Ethiopia, Mattan had been raised to believe that getting to Israel was the only end game. Between the deaths of his parents, and the civil war, the dream was particularly strong.

“I wasn’t crying because my parents died, my mind was thinking about Jerusalem,” he says. “Little African boys think only of Africa. I think only of Jerusalem.”

When Mattan arrived in Israel, he got off the plane, knelt and kissed the ground. As for many other Ethiopian Jews, his dream of ‘Return to Zion’ had come true.

Operation Solomon recalled a previous, equally audacious operation to rescue Ethiopian Jews stranded in Sudan in 1984 called Operation Moses.

“These are amazing stories, operation, Moses and Solomon,” said Brahano Tangia, a well-known Ethiopian Israeli reporter for Channel 2 News in Tel Aviv, who arrived with his family during Operation Solomon.

One of those stories involves Asher Seyum. Seyum was born in a small Jewish farming village in the Gondar region of northern Ethiopia, about 15 kilometers away from Gondar city. He, with his family, made “Aliyah” — the immigration of Jews to Israel — during Operation Moses when he was 12-years-old.

Seyum crossed into Sudan on foot at night. Leaving Ethiopia was illegal and dangerous, says Seyum. They risked discovery by Sudanese and Ethiopian forces.

In Sudan, Seyum and his family lived in a refugee camp for almost a year. Disease and rotten food killed many people, including two of his sister’s children, says Seyum.

During Operation Moses, the Israeli Defense Forces’ planes airlifted about 8,000 Ethiopians Jews from Sudan to Israel.

Uri Dromi, then chief education officer of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), was one of the pilots involved in the Operation.

“I was privileged to participate in this,” he says, recalling the daring nighttime raid into Sudan. “I have never felt so proud to be Israeli.”

Dromi remembers with excitement one of the airlifts. “I started seeing bushes around us,” he says. “The bushes start moving, but they were not bushes, they were people. The people came in and in one minute the plane was full.”

“We took out all the seats and everything so they were sitting on the floor. Many of them were dressed in white, because they said they were going to ‘the Promised Land.’ We landed at Ben Gurion Airport, we turned off the engine and there was a silence… They let the chief, the most important guy, go first and he kneeled and kissed the ground of the Land of Israel,” says Dromi. “This was very moving.”

But after that emotional rescue, Jewish Ethiopians did not receive the welcome they’d expected. The full integration of Ethiopians Jews into greater Israeli society has not been easy.

When Ethiopian Jews came to Israel, they were placed in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. The influx of thousands of new citizens put a large strain on local government services. Most Ethiopians did not speak Hebrew, nor could they read or write.

They were also not considered to be true Jews by most members of the Israelite community, despite the fact that the Judaism they practiced was more traditional than anything in modern Israel.

For those Ethiopians who were born in Israel and have never seen their parents’ homeland, the disconnection can be particularly difficult.

“The youth say to me, our parents have suffered from discrimination, and we grow up here. We breathe Israel but we don’t feel Israeli,” says Tangia.

Asher Seyum was born in Ethiopia and made Aliyah to Israel when he was 12 years-old. “We don’t have the privilege to look for excuses. We need to take our life with our hands and do our best in order to be the best one,” he said. “If we will be the best one wherever we integrate, it won’t matter for the people our color.” Josh Futtersak/CUNY J

Another issue Ethiopian Jews face is a lack of representation in the Knesset. There is only one Ethiopian Jew that currently serves in the Israeli Parliament, and “no one cares about you if you don’t have political power,” said Tangia.

Currently, there are about 130,000 Ethiopian Jews and about 75,000 of them were born in Israel. Compared to 14 percent of all Jewish families in Israel, 39 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli families live in poverty. Nineteen percent of Ethiopian-Israeli men and 33 percent of women are employed as unskilled workers compared to only 4 percent of the general Jewish population.

“Unlike other cases in African history when Africans were taken away to slavery, we delivered our people to liberty. However, we were much less enthusiastic in really absorbing them properly, both materially and mentally,” said Dromi.

The Israeli government is taking steps to address the disparities between Ethiopian Jews and the rest of Jews in Israel, such as providing educational programs in schools and in the military.

A high level national committee recently released a government report on ways to use education to combat racism, such as integrating dark skinned dolls into elementary schools along with white ones and instructing non-Ethiopian Israeli teachers in Ethiopian Jewish history.

The Israel Defense Force – made up largely of young Israelis who are conscripted for 2-3 years from the age of 18 – has been one aspect of society that has been both a unifier and social mobilizer for Ethiopians Jews. The IDF gives incomparable opportunities and connections for young Israelis to move into areas such as programs in high tech and the media.

“I served in the Israeli army and at that time I felt that I am already integrated into the Israeli society,” said Seyum.

Top Photo: Brahano Tagania, was born in Ethiopia. He has worked for Channel 2 News in Tel Aviv since 2008. Josh Futtersak/CUNY J