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Challenges For A Land Of Immigrants

Israel’s Ethiopian Jews adapt to modernity

by Michele Chabin with photographs by Ilene Perlman

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“Everything was difficult,” said Bat-El Ananey, a 28-year-old attorney, as she recalled her family’s culture shock when they first arrived in Israel from the African nation of Ethiopia.

“We came from a place with no toilets, no electricity, no telephones or television. I remember fetching drinking water from the river,” she continued. “And we had never seen white Jews before!”

Ms. Ananey and her family are among the 110,000 Ethiopian Jews, known as the Beta Israel, or House of Israel, who today call Israel home. For thousands of years, the Beta Israel lived in obscurity in northwestern Ethiopia, where they observed a form of Judaism that predates the rabbinical form practiced by most Jews since the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. However, Ethiopia’s great famine in 1984 and the West’s response ended their relative isolation and irrevocably altered their fortunes.

Fleeing starvation and the civil war that triggered the famine, more than 12,000 Ethiopian Jews left their villages and crossed on foot into neighboring Sudan; some 4,000 died en route. Huddled in refugee camps, 8,000 Beta Israel were evacuated in a covert airlift engineered by Israel between November 1984 and January 1985. Once the Western media broke the story of “Operation Moses,” Sudan’s government halted the operation. A year later, with assistance from the United States, Israeli forces airlifted an additional 800 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan.

For the next five years, the Derg — Ethiopia’s repressive Marxist government — refused to negotiate the emigration of Ethiopia’s remaining Jews. But as civil war raged on and the power of the Derg waned, Derg leaders used the Beta Israel as a bargaining chip to secure their own safe passage from Ethiopia.

In May 1990, word of an agreement allowing a restricted number of Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel spread fast through Ethiopia’s remaining Jewish communities, including Sela, a remote northern village where Ms. Ananey’s family lived and worked as sustenance farmers. Hoping to emigrate, the family, along with the village’s other Jews, set out for the Israeli consulate in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa.

At the tender age of 8, Ms. Ananey embarked on a journey that would change her and her family’s lives forever. Selling their land and livestock, she and her family walked first to the nearby city of Gondar then across dangerous terrain to Addis Ababa. In all, the trip took the family a year.

As rebel forces converged on the capital in May 1991 — forcing surviving members of the Derg to flee — the Israelis dispatched 34 planes to Addis Ababa. Beginning on 24 May, they airlifted 14,500 Beta Israel to the Jewish state in 36 hours.

Some 30 years after Israel began the ingathering of Ethiopia’s Jews, the Beta Israel continues to grapple with modernity’s practical and social challenges.

While Jewish immigrants from other traditional non-Western societies, such as Morocco and Yemen, have successfully integrated into Israel’s mainstream, many Beta Israel still struggle to adjust to a society vastly different from rural Ethiopia.

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