An Absorbing Matter

Jerusalem’s Ethiopian population is on the rise. So are its members, who say the system is stacked against them.

The controversial, graphic remarks made by Mevaseret Zion council head Carmi Gillon at the end of last month, concerning supposed vandalism by Ethiopian children living in the town’s absorption center, hit a raw nerve in a community that has been fighting an uphill battle for acceptance and integration into Israeli society. Today, some 90,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, including nearly 25,000 who are Israeli-born. They came in two main waves: 8,000 in Operation Moses in 1984-5 and 14,000 in Operation Solomon in May 1991, plus various smaller aliyahs from 1991, onward. Approximately 4,000 Ethiopian Jews live in the Greater Jerusalem area. This includes 1,300 at the Mevaseret Absorption Center; about 1,200 in Beit Shemesh; some 1,200 in the city proper; 100 in Ma’aleh Adumim; and 100 in Kiryat Arba.

Inside the city, the community is concentrated in Talpiot/Baka along Hebron and Bethlehem Roads; Kiryat Hayovel/Kiryat Menachem along Nurit Street; East Talpiot; Katamon Heth and Tet; Neve Ya’akov/Pisgat Ze’ev; and Ramot. Even though thousands of Ethiopian olim found their first home in Jerusalem area absorption centers in the 1980s and 1990s, for years there was barely an Ethiopian community in the city. Only in the last three or four years has the community begun to grow, with new olim from the Givat Hamatos caravan site and the Mevaseret Absorption Center taking up permanent residence in the capital.

“There is something rather ironic in this,” says Dr. Shalva Weil, an anthropologist and senior researcher at the National Council of Jewish Women’s Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University. “Jerusalem has always been absolutely central in the prayers and minds of Ethiopian Jewry. For 3,000 years, they dreamt of Jerusalem. The most important festival of the Ethiopian community, “The Sigd,” takes place in Jerusalem and their memorial for those who died on the way to Sudan in the 1980s, is here in the city. “During Operation Moses, I remember Ethiopian olim saying that they had come to Jerusalem even if they actually were living in Ashdod. The whole of Israel is Jerusalem to them. And yet few actually settled in the city.”

Weil says this was not a fluke, but rather due to a deliberate policy of the municipality. “I sat on various committees during the 1980s and 1990s that discussed whether to settle Ethiopian olim in Jerusalem,” she claims. “The city said it couldn’t take Ethiopians on the pretext that there was not enough industry to employ them. After Operation Solomon, several big hotels were populated by Ethiopian olim, yet the city got rid of nearly all of them. “The same was true for the majority of olim at Givat Hamatos. Only a handful remained in Jerusalem. The municipality was never really keen on having Ethiopians in the city.”

Weil believes the change of heart that has taken place over the last few years has been motivated by the city’s shifting demographics. “The Jewish population of Jerusalem declines in percentage and suddenly the city wants Ethiopian olim,” she points out. Despite the change in municipal policy, the city has not developed the range of services the community would like to see. “Programs for the Ethiopian community are far less developed in Jerusalem than in other localities,” claims Nurit Tizazu of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jewry. “Maybe it’s because there were not many Ethiopians in the city for so long. “Nevertheless, there is no Ethiopian synagogue in Jerusalem and no Ethiopian social club. Also, the community would really like more activities designed especially for it.”

Community leader Avraham Neguise, head of South Wing to Zion and a Jerusalem resident for 20 years, is more critical of the municipality. “The city is simply not doing what needs to be done for the Ethiopian community,” he insists. “It ignores its Ethiopian residents. This upsets and angers us. Other cities have social clubs. But here in Jerusalem, there is no club and no programs for the elderly and youth in our community. “Beit Shemesh has set up a wonderful program for the elderly in the Ethiopian community. But Jerusalem has no such thing. We have our own traditions and culture. This cannot be erased. Yet we have no social club where we can come together to celebrate.”

Neguise points out that most Ethiopian parents cannot afford to pay for after school activities offered by community centers. “Our children end up not being included in informal education,” he continues. “Some, because they have no social framework, wander around and are exposed to unacceptable values. I don’t think the city has to wait for the situation to deteriorate even further before acting to provide a framework for our youth.” The city, says Neguise, should have a special coordinator for the Ethiopian community, someone who understands its culture and customs. “Jerusalem should be a model for other cities, with respect to immigrant absorption. We have always maintained that we were making aliyah to Jerusalem. The city has to encourage olim to settle here, but instead of being a model, the city is just the opposite.”

Asher Rahamim, who made aliyah from Ethiopia 22 years ago and has been living in Jerusalem with his wife and children for the last six years, notes that the community has been trying to build an Ethiopian cultural center in Jerusalem for years. “We have received [numerous] promises but the center is still not a reality. The same holds true for the memorial we want to build for those who fell trying to reach this country. For years, we have had to meet near Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in the heat and under very difficult physical conditions. Only recently did the Knesset decide to make this a state ceremony and hold it on Mount Herzl. I am very happy about this, but why did it take so long?” The larger problem facing the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem and Israel, notes Rahamin, is discrimination and racism, which is why “the Carmi Gillon remarks cut so deep.”

“You don’t know what it feels like to call about a job and get an enthusiastic reception on the telephone and then to come to the interview and see the employer’s whole demeanor change the minute you walk through the door. Suddenly, you are no longer really what he is looking for,” relates 26-year-old Aviva Marsha, a Hebrew University graduate who arrived to Israel at age three. “There is racism in this country and there are people in Israel who only look at the color of my skin and nothing else. This is the sad truth. I want to be judged on my own individual merits or demerits. It hurts when I am not. People say that if you are educated, things will be easier. But even with a university degree in hand, there are still barriers.” Tizazu, who as a young child spent four years (1983-7) in the Kiryat Gat Absorption Center, feels that while there is racism out there, it is important to know when to say it and when not. “If I shout racism every time, then I am only strengthening stereotypes and people will stop listening to me after a while. Also, not every case of discrimination is racism. Yes, there are ignorant people in Israeli society and there are those who treat people who are different, dreadfully. But I believe a person has to think twice before using the word.”

On a more optimistic note, Rahamim has great faith in the Ethiopian community’s future. “From where I live in Talpiot/Baka, I see a community making tremendous efforts to integrate. I am impressed by our unity and our organization. We help one another and take care of our families. Yes, there are problems and I don’t feel that the authorities prepared enough for our absorption. The new olim have tremendous difficulties with Hebrew and I don’t see a willingness on the part of the municipality to really understand our difficulties. “On the other hand, I see the great potential of the Ethiopian community, the desire for involvement and to invest in absorption in order to make a better life in Israel. But these efforts cannot be one- sided. We need to have a partner on the other side to work with.”

Jerusalem Municipality spokesman Gidi Schmerling’s response to the allegations were not received by press time.

A Congregation’s Pride
Now in its eighth year, the Ethiopians for Engineers Program at the Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev (JCT) can count its successes. Designed to promote science and technology studies throughout the Ethiopian population in Israel in the framework of the Israel Defense Forces Academic Reserves, the program now has 18 graduates with degrees in engineering and accounting, serving in the IDF, many as officers. Another 15 are in the final stages of completing their degrees and are awaiting induction. An additional 60 students are currently studying at the JCT.

JCT is a men’s college that combines Torah studies with four-year degree programs in science and technology. The five-year Ethiopians for Engineers Program includes one year of preparatory studies and four years of degree studies. “The goal of this program is to give Ethiopian students a fair chance to become engineers,” explains David Cassel, director of the Ethiopians for Engineers Program. “Ethiopians come to Israel from a different culture.

“They need a bit of a push to get started. Their potential is high, but language difficulties and a different mentality represent barriers. Our program is not just a preparatory program. We accompany our students throughout their academic studies at JCT. For us, success means completing the entire course of study and getting the degree.” Towards that end, students receive full tuition scholarships, plus living stipends throughout their studies. They also receive academic support in the form of one-on-one tutoring and extra lessons.

“In addition,” continues Cassel, “we are there for them to help with personal and family problems, as well as to counsel them concerning academic choices. We are like parents and sometimes this can be even more important than academic support.” Following graduation, Cassel and staff continue to stay in touch. “At least once a week, we call to find out how our grads are doing. If there are problems in the army, we try to help.

“Many of our students come from families in very difficult financial straits and the army is often not aware of this. The main thing is that we don’t push our students out the door after graduation and say, ‘Manage on your own.'” Gershon Brihon, who recently married, finished his studies in computers and teaching and is now awaiting enlistment. Born in Ethiopia, he made aliyah to Israel at the age of 11 in 1991.

“I first heard about this program while I was in high school in Kfar Haroeh,” relates Brihon. “I really hadn’t considered studying computers. I thought it would be too difficult. But the preparatory program and the support I received – financial, academic and emotional – made it all possible. I am now going into the air force to work with computers for six years; three as a conscript and three in the professional army.”

“What we are doing here is really for the benefit of the entire Ethiopian community,” Cassel insists. “It is a national mission to change a not-so-rosy reality. And while we cannot solve every individual problem, we can create something for the next generation, so they will be better able to cope with life in Israel. The greatest form of charity is not a handout, but giving a person the ability to stand on his own two feet and fend for himself. I feel that is what we are doing here.”

Absorption Jerusalem-Style
Over the last 20 years, thousands of Ethiopian olim have found their first home in the Jerusalem area. The Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, which today has 360 apartments housing some 1,300 Ethiopian olim, opened its doors 35 years ago. For many years, it served Western olim. But during Operation Moses, in 1984-5, it also became home to several Ethiopian families. In 1999, according to Michael Jankelowitz, Jewish Agency liaison to the foreign press and media, the center was about to be phased out, in keeping with the move to direct absorption, when it was decided to reopen it for Ethiopian Jews from Quara.

Since then, the center has been used exclusively by Ethiopian olim. Staying an average of two years, approximately 5,000 Ethiopian olim have passed through its gates in the last five years. Following the mass influx of Ethiopian immigrants who were brought to Israel in Operation Solomon in May 1991, three Jerusalem hotels were converted overnight, into absorption centers. The Diplomat Hotel in Talpiot took in about 1,300 olim, the Shalom Hotel in Beit Vegan 470 and the President Hotel in Talbiyah accommodated 159.

Following a violent brawl in the summer of 1991 between Ethiopian and Russian olim at the Diplomat Hotel, the Jewish Agency decided to move the Ethiopians out. The other hotels were phased out towards the end of 1993 and in the first months of 1994. In September 1992, Givat Hamatos was officially inaugurated as housing for both Ethiopian and Russian olim. The 634-caravan site opened with 280 Ethiopian olim in residence. The site continued to house Ethiopian newcomers for over a decade, and is currently inactive.

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