April 8, 2005
The long journey to the Promised Land

By URIEL HEILMAN
JERUSALEM

Bringing the Falash Mura to Israel today is like plucking someone out of biblical times and dropping him on Rehov Sheinkin in Tel Aviv. It's salvation of a sort, but it's also confusing and frightening for rural, simple people who have no clue what they're getting into.

Once in Israel, life is far different from the dreamy existence some Falash Mura envision.

Subsistence farmers who have spent nearly their entire lives in the immediate vicinity of their rural village find themselves in industrialized cities in a foreign country whose native language and customs they do not understand. They have to learn to use indoor bathrooms and gas stoves, to adjust to the noise of Israeli cities, to adapt to a culture in which elders are ignored more often than they are revered.

One man at an absorption center in Mevaseret Zion told of how he grew very anxious during the bus ride from the airport in Lod to his new Israeli home because he saw very few trees from which he could scavenge kindling to build a fire to cook his meals. Then he arrived at his new apartment and saw the gas burners. "I realized I didn't need trees," he said with a laugh.

Earning a living wage, however, is another matter entirely. Unable to practice their traditional trades - or do so in such a way as to make enough money to live - many Ethiopian immigrants rely on government handouts to survive.

The Israeli government estimates that it costs the state $100,000 to absorb each Ethiopian immigrant over the course of his or her lifetime. That includes the cost of housing in an absorption center for up to a year after the immigrants' arrival, paying 90 percent of a mortgage for a home, and providing community members with welfare services, health care and supplemental education.

"People say we discriminate against black people from Ethiopia," said Mike Rosenberg, outgoing director general of the Jewish Agency's Department of Immigration and Absorption. "The truth is that we give them considerations that we do not give to other people."

When it comes to their socialization in Israel, however, the Ethiopians have been plagued by social ills. Close-knit families have disintegrated as children have gone off to the army, moved away and sometimes abandoned their families. The community has the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in Israel. Domestic violence is common, unemployment is extremely high and minimum-wage jobs are common. Many families have fallen apart after their immigration to Israel.

Yet for all the hardship, the Falash Mura still counsel their relatives in Ethiopia to come to Israel and send money back to Ethiopia to help them out. Problems notwithstanding, in Israel Ethiopian children do not have to walk two hours barefoot across fields to go to school. They do not have to wear tattered rags and beg for food. They have a chance at a longer and richer life than the average Ethiopian, whose life expectancy is a paltry 46 years and who earns no more than $108 per year.

More than 90% of Ethiopia's 65 million people are subsistence farmers.

"Our first preference is a good future for our children," said one recently arrived Ethiopian immigrant after Hebrew ulpan at the absorption center in Mevaseret. "We want to make sure they get a good education. We'll do any type of work, day and night, so our kids get a good education. We want our kids to be like the Israelis."

To assist their transition to Israel, the Jewish Agency runs a weeklong orientation for imminent Ethiopian olim immediately prior to their move to Israel. They bring them to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa where the Ethiopians watch videos about life in Israel, learn about how to use Western kitchens and bathrooms, and undergo medical tests to make sure they don't bring any highly contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, to Israel. Some of them are HIV positive, and once in Israel they get treatment for their disease.

"We try to give them a small idea about what they're going to experience in Israel," said Ori Konforti, the Jewish Agency for Israel's representative in Addis Ababa. For some, he said, it may be the first time they have ever seen a TV.

The Jewish Agency currently processes some 80 olim per week at the Israeli Embassy compound in Addis Ababa. But once the government begins bringing 600 olim per month, which is expected some time this summer, the process will grow much larger and more complex.

Preparations are already under way at the embassy compound, where new buildings are under construction to accommodate the expected expanded load of olim. Israeli personnel are also preparing to take over the compounds of the North American Conference on Ethiopia Jewry in Addis and Gondar, where security is something of a concern.

In recent years, two guards were murdered outside the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry's Gondar compound on two separate occasions, according to an Israeli official in Gondar. Both were related to private disputes, but the incidents underscore the security concerns among the Israelis in Ethiopia as they function in what some describe as the Wild West of the Horn of Africa.

Embassy officials, however, said the process is organized and lawful.

"This aliya process is orderly, well coordinated and done with the full cooperation of the Ethiopian government," said Doron Grossman, Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, just days before he committed suicide after learning that he was afflicted with late- stage terminal cancer. "It is being done in an extremely constructive and friendly atmosphere."

Ultimately, the success of Israel's Ethiopian aliya will rest not on how good a job Israel does bringing the immigrants, but how well it absorbs them.

"That will answer the question of whether or not they were saved," an Israeli official said.