The subsequent dramatic airlifts of Ethiopian Jews from the heart of Africa to the Promised Land in 1984 (Operation Moses) and 1991 (Operation Solomon) captured the world's imagination. For centuries, Ethiopian Jews had cherished the dream that one day they would return to Jerusalem. The dream finally came true, but for most newcomers, the reality has fallen short of their expectations.
Before arriving in Israel, most Ethiopian Jews had been semi-literate subsistence farmers living in villages, usually without electricity or any modern conveniences. Being thrust into a high-tech society has been traumatic, especially for those who were older than 30 when they arrived. For the young, change is always easier.
Some of Israel's 100,000 strong Ethiopian Jewish community have done well, especially the children of community leaders. But most struggle to keep their feet on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Yitzhak Dessie became the first-ever Ethiopian-born Israeli lawyer when he qualified in 1998. With the support of the New Israel Fund, which promotes social justice and human rights in Israel, he set up Tebeka-Center for Legal Aid and Advocacy for Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Tebeka is suing a major supermarket chain in Israel because one of its sales people in a Rishon Lezion branch refused to serve a woman because she was black.
This type of discrimination, though, is not the main problem.
"The kind of prejudice that existed in pre-'60s America or apartheid South Africa is very rare in Israel," said Dessie. "One of the main forms of discrimination is still the belief that Ethiopian Israelis are not fully Jewish."
Thus, Tebeka recently won major compensation from the Arad Labor Court for an Ethiopian immigrant woman who was fired from a restaurant when a local rabbi refused to renew the establishment's kashrut certificate if she continued in its employ.
There is also deep-rooted socioeconomic prejudice. Cities are reluctant to take in large numbers of Ethiopian immigrants, fearing that they will make the city less attractive for young middle class couples. Last September, Yitzhak Bokovza, the mayor of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv, reversed his refusal to register 42 Ethiopian Israeli immigrant children in the city's schools after Tebeka appealed to the Supreme Court against the action.
Despite these insulting incidents, Dessie believes that the Ethiopian Israeli community's future can be a bright one, and that it is in its own hands. "The essential obstacle confronting Israel's Ethiopian-born community," he insists, "is not discrimination, but lack of employment opportunities and their own ability to grasp Israeli culture."
With this in mind, Tebeka initiated a positive discrimination program with the Israel Bar Association last summer. So far, 12 Ethiopian Israeli law graduates have been fast-tracked as interns with leading Tel Aviv corporate law firms, with eight more due to be employed in the coming months.
Asher Elias had similar motivations and priorities when he established Tech-Career in 2004, a center for training Ethiopians to work in high-tech. He sees employment as the key to the full integration.
"Of course, employment is tied to education," he said, "but even so, there are over 3,000 university-educated Ethiopian Israelis. That's a huge potential reservoir. The problem is that they are channeled toward low-paid careers in teaching, social work and nursing. Ethiopians cannot be accepted into the computer science departments of universities and go into high-tech, which is one of the most lucrative areas in the economy, because the academic elite has set criteria in the form of psychometric exams, which our community scores low on."
Elias, who gave up his own lucrative career in high-tech to prove that large numbers of fellow Ethiopians do have the potential to make it in the advanced technology sector, set up Tech-Career together with American immigrant Glen Stein, who was involved with a U.S. project called Byte Back, which trained the disadvantaged for work in high-tech. Based in Kibbutz Nachshon, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Tech-Career offers a year-long intensive program for high school graduates from the Ethiopian Israeli community.
In the first year, nine of 15 students graduated the course and found work in high-tech, while in the second course (still running) nine students began and six remain. Benjamin Melko, 26, a graduate of the first Tech-Career class, joined a high-tech company as an Internet site developer.
Today, he earns a salary far higher than his previous job as a security guard. "I immigrated to Israel at the age of 4 with my mother. My father stayed in Ethiopia," he said. "I wanted to go to university, but I knew that in order to live I'd need to work at random jobs and that it would affect my studies. I heard about the Tech-Career project and decided to join. It's one of the smartest decisions I ever made. I still haven't given up the dream of going to university, but right now, with the salary I'm earning, it will be easier for me to finance my studies."
A recent Jewish Agency for Israel campaign to celebrate 30 years of Ethiopian immigration has emphasized this type of success. Ads have focused on Ethiopian immigrants like Maj. Shlomi Vicha, an Israel Defense Forces company commander who reached Israel as a young child, and Shlomo Molla, the former head of the Jewish Agency's Ethiopian immigration and absorption department, who just missed out in March on becoming a Knesset member in the Kadima Party.
"We want the Israeli public to have a positive image of our community," says Dessie, "and our own people to have role models. But let's not lose sight of the fact that most Ethiopian Israelis are not succeeding."
The statistics do not bode well. According to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, more than 50 percent of the community lives beneath the poverty line and almost all who are employed have menial jobs.
The good news, however, is that more than 50 percent of the Ethiopian Israeli community is younger than 18 and not yet alienated from Israeli society.
Moreover, Israel has a fresh chance with the thousands of immigrants mainly Falash Mura who converted from Judaism to Christianity in recent generations and are converting back upon reaching Israel have immigrated in the past few years.
Copyright 2006, Washington Jewish Week