Israel and Ethiopian Aliyah — Where to Now?

Safed has three absorption centers for Ethiopian immigrants. That’s a high percentage for a town of 30,000 people but, as a friend of mine once pointed out, Safed has a reputation as being a welcoming place.

500 years ago, when Jews were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews converted under duress. Once they managed to leave Spain they tried to re-enter the Jewish world and were oftentimes met with suspicion and derision. Some of these Jews arrived in Safed and built their own synagogue because they were unwelcome in the mainstream synagogues of the day. Two Safed Rabbis, Rabbi Beirav and Rabbi Alsheich, wrote letters to rabbinical leaders throughout the world, stating the case for reaccepting these Jews into the community. In the end, their view was accepted and the Jewish converts were regarded as “Ba’alei Tshuva” — returnees. Ever since then, my friend notes, Safed has been regarded as a city that welcomes outsiders.

The authorities who planned the absorption of the Ethiopian immigrants probably figured that out since, proportionally, Safed has more absorption facilities than other cities. Over the years I have had periodic contact with the absorption centers, arranging community service work for them through the Livnot U’Lehibanot Israel Experience Program, serving as a committee member for the Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed and some acquaintences.

This week, as a writer, I was asked to visit the absorption center and write an article about a unique Bar and Bat Mitzva program that the UJIA of Great Britain does with the Center families.

The interview went well, thanks to a staff member who translated. The residents talked about their lives in Ethiopia, their aliyah and their new lives and hopes in Israel. These were families who had had farms and livelihoods in Ethiopia but still were prepared to leave everything to come to the unknown, mainly, they all reiterated, so that their children could grow up as Jews.

Throughout the interview the Israeli government’s recent pronouncement about having now “brought all the Ethiopian Jews to Israel” in the back of my mind. The government announced, last month, that it was ending the mass aliyah and would only deal with future immigrants on a small scale….individual family reunifications, etc.

But all of the families that I spoke to — including one man whose uncle, a “kes” (from the Cohenic priestly family) made aliyah with his community’s ancient Torah Scroll which was written in Ge’ez) — spoke of their families back in Ethiopia who hadn’t yet made aliyah. When I asked them about these people they explained that many couldn’t make the trek to Gondor, the staging point for aliyah, because they couldn’t leave their farms and livelihoods for the uncertainty of when they’d be accepted for aliyah.

They also spoke of the fear that many of the people have of the anti-semitism in Gondor — they repeated over and over how badly the non-Jews in Gondor treated Jewish Ethiopians. (The UJIA staff member at the center explained that a non-Jew will not offer a Jew a cup of water and if he finds out that the person that he gave water to is a Jew, he’s allowed to kill him).

I wonder who made this government decision? And I wonder whether the Ethiopian immigrants are the only ones who should be protesting, what seems to me, to be a serious mistake. What would we expect of the government if immigration was cut off to our families in the States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia or other western countries?

And as long as we’re on the topic…’s great to pat ourselves on our backs for the immigration thus far (name me one other country that would put the kind of resources into this type of program) but we have to go beyond the initial aliyah and absorption to ensure that, once here, these new olim are integrated into Israel. My son tutored Ethiopian schoolkids in the center of the country as part of his volunteer work during his university studies and he noted that, 1. they’re extremely bright and 2. they have little opportunities to advance because simply surviving takes all of their energies.

Someone else mentioned that some Ethiopian kids are now hanging around with the illegal Somali workers in Tel Aviv because they feel so disinfranchised by Israeli society.

In short, we have a long way to go to meet the needs of this community.



About the Author
Laurie Rappeport has been living in Safed for 28 years. She worked in the Tzfat Tourist Information Center for 13 years and continues to be active in tourism to Tzfat and northern Israel. Laurie works as a freelance writer and teaches about Israel and Jewish subjects online.