AUTHORAlexa Ryan West Alexa Ryan West is a member of the class of 2013 in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. Originally from New York, she participated in the Junior Year Abroad Network from Jerusalem, Israel during the spring of 2012.
March 18, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES: JEWISH
Ethiopian Jews are Struggling to Assimilate in Israel
May 29, 2012 | 1 COMMENT
Most people think of Jews as coming from Eastern Europe, or from Spain and Morocco. Very few understand how a Jewish population ended up in Ethiopia. Ethiopian Jews claim that they are descendents of Queen Shiba, the wife of King Solomon. Ethiopia was home to a thriving Jewish culture, but it was slowly being oppressed by the government. The first modern contact with the now oppressed community came in 1769 when the Scottish explorer James Bruce stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Nile River.
Israel jumped on this opportunity to congregate more Jews in the holy land. The head Rabbi of Israel claimed that the Ethiopian Jews were descendants of the Tribe of Dan (one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Dan was thought to be one of the ten lost tribes until contact was made with Ethiopian Jewry). All the Ethiopians came to Israel, and you'd think they lived happily ever after.
But alas, just like other minorities in other countries, Ethiopians have had a hard time fitting in among other Israelis. When Ethiopians arrived after Operation Solomon, public housing in Israel's main cities had all been occupied already by mass immigration from the Soviet Union. As a result, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants lived in temporary mobile homes, or "caravanim," upon arrival. Over 10,000 Ethiopians lived in absorption centers, originally meant to be temporary accommodations.
The absorption centers were designed to instigate a formalized integration process for the Ethiopians into main stream Israeli society. Many people thought the centers were a great and helpful idea, but many others resisted the centers and wanted to keep their original cultures. Ethiopian immigrants have had a lot of trouble with unemployment, lack of education, illiteracy, and illness. Because of this, Israel gives four times the amount of aid to Ethiopian immigrants than it does to any other immigrant population.
With these funds, the Ethiopian population is beginning to spread around Israel instead of being segregated into small areas, like southern Tel-Aviv. Ethiopians have established cultural centers to learn more about African Jewry. They are also slowly receiving better jobs, housing, and educations. Israelis have a lot to learn from the tolerant, vibrant Ethiopian culture, and more and more Israelis are realizing that by the day.
RESPONSE TO ALEXA WEST FROM SARAH AMOS July 20, 2012
When I visited Israel before studying abroad in Egypt, I met with a women who ran an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center. My tour guide boasted that Israel is the only country that wants immigrants; he was talking about Operation Solomon’s importing of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. But your description of the absorption of difficulties facing Ethiopian Jews reminds me of the recent problem in Israel’s handling of Sudanese refugees. While Ethiopian Jews do have a legal basis for entry according to Israeli law, Sudanese and Eritrean refugees — who do not have the “golden ticket” of being Jewish — lack that luxury. At the moment, Israel is in a state of paralysis; they let these African refugees into the country, but will not allow them to work. Worse, some refugees are sent to detention centers.
As a Jewish state, it makes sense why Israel is averse to accepting an unlimited number of non-Jew immigrants. Setting aside the Palestinian conflict for a moment, if Israel let in non-Jews in great numbers, the very foundation of its state would be in question. (Interestingly, so far Israel has allowed 350,000 non-Jewish immigrants from former Soviet states. The fact that non-Jew Africans are not allowed though adds another confusing racial dimension.)
“So many Jews, not that many years ago, tried to enter other countries illegally, and were saved or were denied. And I would expect Israel to remember this,” Gideon Levy, a Haaretz columnist said. And indeed, the photos and video footage of African refugees sitting and sleeping in city squares, since they have nowhere to go, reminds one of the problem European Jews faced years ago. The groups of refugees are facing great racism from locals, and even violence. In early June, a house of ten Eritrean migrant workers was burned down, trapping some inside and injuring four. The culprit left a message in graffiti: “leave the neighborhood.”
Complicating this, Israel does not have a formal process for immigration, because most Jewish immigrants go through aliyah. At the moment Israel is scrambling to figure out a solution, one that retains their state’s Jewishness but does not provoke condemnation from the global community. But in the meantime on the ground, African refugees are being let in but not allowed to obtain work or housing to make temporary living in Israel hospitable. It’s a “huge experiment in human beings,” Levy said.
It’s a difficult issue. One that I won’t pretend to know an answer to. However, I think it’s hypocritical for Israel to take great pride in its acceptance of large scales of Jewish immigrants, while others who are escaping danger but aren’t Jewish, are not welcomed.