Israel’s undesirables: Falashmura struggle against poverty, bias

(03-22) 04:00 PST Lod, Israel — Although Akalnesh Yemer has learned only a smattering of Hebrew since arriving from Ethiopia three years ago, she has mastered the necessary slang needed to keep her tormentors at bay.

Her Israeli Arab neighbors have tried to stab her nephew, thrown stones at her family and pounded on their front door at all hours. Yemer says the harassment stems from the Yemers’ triple whammy of being Jewish, being black and not speaking Arabic.

“We live in fear, but we cannot afford to move,” she said. “We call the police, but they don’t come.”

Yemer, 55, is a Falashmura, an Ethiopian Jew who converted to Christianity but considers herself Jewish.

They were virtually unknown until Israel’s “Operation Solomon” in 1991, when Ethiopia allowed Israel to airlift 1,500 Ethiopian Jews. A number of Falashmura — whose name may be an Agau tribal word that means “someone who changes their faith” — tried to board the planes, insisting they were Jews by ancestry. Israel turned them away, arguing that most had never practiced Judaism and simply wanted to get out of Ethiopia.

In January, the Israeli cabinet agreed to permit 20,000 Falashmura languishing in camps in Addis Ababa to enter Israel. The decision coincided with a ruling by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra- Orthodox Shas party, who called the Ethiopian descendants of the tribes of Israel and compared them to Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition.

Falashmura supporters say they were forced to convert by aggressive missionaries or had done so for pragmatic reasons without ever really abandoning their Jewish faith. Most Falashmura also view themselves as Jews who just needed help to reconnect with their faith.

Some 50,000 Ethiopian Jews — a quarter of them Israeli-born — already live in Israel. Many of them were brought over in airlifts in 1984 and 1991. They believe they are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

But instead of the promised land, many have been shunned by biased neighbors and relegated to a life of welfare, unemployment and low-paying jobs.

Yemer’s brother Fentahun, 60, a former subsistence farmer who wears a gold necklace emblazoned with the Star of David, says the Falashmura in Ethiopia should think twice about coming to Israel. “They would be better off somewhere else,” he said. “And so would we.”

Little is known about the origins of Ethiopian Jews, who call themselves Beta Israel, but it is believed they adopted Judaism around the Second and Third centuries. Their beliefs are based on the Torah — the five books of Moses — and include observing the Sabbath, Passover and other Jewish holidays.

They do not recognize rabbinical laws and commentaries that never reached Ethiopia.

Israeli rabbis recognized Ethiopian Jews in 1975. But it was only after a severe famine hit Ethiopia in 1984 and political violence claimed the lives of thousands that then-dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam agreed to allow the Falasha — Jews who never converted — to be secretly flown to Israel via neighboring Sudan. Some 10,000 managed to get out during “Operation Moses” before media leaks caused the Sudanese government to stop the flights.

The Falashmura who refused to return to their homes after being left behind during Operation Solomon have been an embarrassing issue for Israel because of the squalid conditions of their camps. An American group called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry has helped provide them with aid.

In 1992, Israel established a special committee to resolve the dilemma. The panel recommended a one time humanitarian gesture to bring 4,000 Falashmura to Israel. The committee also ruled that future Ethiopian immigrants would have to prove that they had at least one Jewish grandparent in accordance with the nation’s Law of Return.

But the decision to grant 4,000 entry permits sparked thousands of Falashmura to overrun Ethiopian transit camps and increased pressure on Israel to change its policy once again.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears keen on boosting Jewish immigration, which has fallen dramatically in recent years. He has said that Israel wants 1 million Jewish immigrants by 2010 to offset the high population growth in Arab communities.

Upon arrival, Ethiopian immigrants are typically given temporary housing until the government furnishes them with public housing. Many live far from mainstream Israeli society.

“We don’t have contact with (other Jewish) Israelis,” said Fentahun Yemer. “There aren’t many around here.”

Life in this mixed Jewish-Arab town in central Israel is a far cry from the rural village that Yemer left in western Ethiopia, buoyed by a religious faith and belief in a better life in Israel. Her decrepit graffiti-covered apartment building reeks of cabbage, spices and vinegar, and her cramped quarters house 10 relatives.

Success in acclimating to Israeli society varies. Older Ethiopians often cannot adjust to their new surroundings, and 45 percent of parents don’t speak even basic Hebrew, according to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), an advocacy group that represents the immigrants.

“Many youngsters today live in difficult areas, have to go to schools where the standards are low,” said Mulualem Temeyet, 28, a counselor for an Ethiopian youth center in Lod who has lived in Israel since 1986.

The youth facility runs a series of educational and social activities aimed at keeping some 80 youngsters off the streets and away from drugs.

A recent news report estimated that one in 10 Ethiopians living in Lod has a criminal record, while the IAEJ says the number of youths arrested between 1996 and 1999 has increased by 255 percent.

Sixty-six percent of Ethiopian families are dependent on government welfare,

and school dropout rates are the highest of any Jewish group — double the national average at 6.2 percent. Unemployment rates are about 15 percent (the national average is 10.5 percent) and those with jobs typically toil in public service or low-income industries.

But there are exceptions.

Education Ministry figures show an increase in high school graduations between 1995 and 1997 from 159 to 294, with an average of more than 400 in following years. First-year university students and doctoral candidates have doubled, and there are 1,500 Ethiopians currently studying in universities or colleges.

In 1999, Sagi Laicha became the first Ethiopian Jew to graduate from Brandeis University and Avraham Yitzhak became the first to graduate from medical school. In 2001, Yafet Alemu was ordained as Israel’s first Ethiopian conservative rabbi.

Ethiopians are also making their presence felt in the military, where they are joining elite units and becoming officers.

“There are more role models in the community and more people going to university to inspire our youth, which is very important,” said youth counselor Temeyet, a graduate of Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University.

Back at the Yemer family’s apartment, Fentahun says the family’s situation should improve once they leave their Lod ghetto.

“Life here isn’t what I expected,” he said near a tourist poster of a wistful-looking Ethiopian woman posing under a slogan extolling the African nation’s sunshine. “I have no regrets about leaving Ethiopia. Just about living around here.”

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