Ingathering of the Exiles: Ethiopian Update

Building a black underclass

(May 24, 2001) – In 36 hours, between May 24 and May 25, 1991, just 10 years ago, Israelis watched, awestruck and transfixed, as nearly 15,000 Ethiopians — eight of them born en route — descended from the Israel Air Force and El Al airplanes that had brought them, en masse, to the State of Israel.

The airlift was called Operation Solomon. It had been a massive Zionist rescue operation, and our hearts filled with pride. The new immigrants were tired, thin, confused and shy. They wore traditional flowing white robes. The women carried their infants on their backs, their long necks enhanced with strange tattoos. Enchanted, veteran Israelis greeted them with a generous outpouring of clothes, toys, diapers, sheets and towels, and good will.

The media focused on their exotic skin color and ancient tribal customs. “The True Meaning of the Ingathering of the Exiles” the headlines told us. The ministries provided emergency housing and the Chief Rabbinate debated their Jewishness. Coalition agreements determined that the children would be sent to NRP-aligned boarding schools, to help them integrate.

And then, somehow, they disappeared from the sight and mind of the Israeli public. Every so often, they penetrated back into consciousness — when an Ethiopian immigrant was particularly successful and reinforced mainstream society’s myths about absorption into Western culture, or during the violent riots in 1996, when the normally docile community protested that their blood was not being used for blood donations for fear of AIDS contamination.

But generally, the community was forgotten. They were too weak to make a social impact, too poor to have economic clout, and too few to make a political difference. So they made aliya — they immigrated to Israel, but they never finished their klita — absorption into Israeli society.

Since 1991 and 1999, according to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, nearly 12,000 more Ethiopian immigrants have come to Israel, some of them Falash Mura families (families of Jewish origin who had converted to Christianity) and some from outlying regions.

Largely forgotten, the Ethiopian immigrants have become, as Shula Mola, Director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ) declares, “Israel’s black underclass,” living in Israel’s geographical, social and economic periphery.