In the Promised Land

By Briggs, Jimmie | The Crisis, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

In the Promised Land


Briggs, Jimmie, The Crisis


Ethiopian Jews have faced racism and other daunting challenges in the Holy Land

Sitting at a table in the food court of a crowded Tel Aviv shopping mall, Zohara Aiaso fingered a silver necklace and pendant around her neck. The 28-year-old community activist had just arrived in Tel Aviv from her home in Beersheva. It was late afternoon and mothers hurried small children along with overstuffed shopping bags weighing their arms down. Fresh-faced soldiers loitered around a cluster of tables, sipping on soft drinks or chatting loudly with civilian friends.

Aiaso watched at a distance, silently with deep focus, all the while caressing the precious jewelry. It is her most prized possession, a blessing from the Torah. The item's worth goes much further, though, as an affirmation of her Judaic faith and the grueling journey she made as a child because of it. "For Jews all over the world, Israel is the Holy Land," she explained. "I think Israel is the Holy Land for everyone. But when Ethiopians come to Israel, it's not the place they want to find. It's difficult for them to see the Israel they see. My family believed in Israel. They believed it was a place for Jews. No matter what's going on, they say, 'it's our place.'"

As a 6-year-old child, she walked with her parents and 12 siblings from their rural village in Ethiopia to the Sudan, where they witnessed extraordinary hardship and poverty during a year-long wait to be flown to Israel. Like tens of thousands of other Ethiopians, Aiaso came to Israel during one of the largest human airlifts in history: Operation Moses ran from Nov. 21, 1984 to Jan. 5, 1985, bringing in 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, while thousands more ventured on their own through Sudan to Egypt and Europe. Four thousand refugees perished "while journeying on foot through Sudan. At the time, Ethiopia was in turmoil under the leadership of Haile Selassie. The Ethiopian Jews marched and trekked through mountains, deserts, and even minefields. In Sudan, they lived in squalid refugee camps until they could be brought to Israel illegally, because at the time Israel didn't have diplomatic relations with Ethiopia or Sudan.

Seven years later, more than 14,000 more Ethiopians came to Israel during Operation Solomon-within 36 hours.

"It was a long way to come," Aiaso recalled. She now works for ALMAYA, an organization to support Ethiopian women and children. Though none in her family perished, more than 6,000 others died trying to reach the Jewish homeland that had invited them. Still, nearly a quarter of a century later, the approximate 100,000 strong Ethiopian community continues to struggle in a country ostensibly created for them. Even more strikingly, women are compelled, sometimes violently, to balance the traditional Old World, and the wide-open-with-possibilities New World. The challenges confronting the successful integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society mirror those faced by immigrant communities around the world, particularly in the United States. In the case of the so-called "beta-Israel," the name for Ethiopian Jews, quite a few are of their own making.

Belaynesh Zevadia was the first Ethiopian member of Israel's Foreign Ministry and in the late '90s went on to receive an appointment with the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, in Chicago as consul for public relations. Today, she is deputy consul for Israel in Houston, Texas. Born in Ethiopia, she moved to Israel in 1984 at age 16. She not only acts as a role model for younger Ethiopians, but also faces the challenge of raising a teenage daughter in America.

"I'm not saying everyone is successful but the numbers are encouraging," Zevadia explained by phone from Texas. She earned degrees from Hebrew University and joined the Israeli Foreign Ministry as a cadet in 1993.

"We have to be proud," she continued. "We went to Israel because it's our Jewish homeland. We dreamed for 2,500 years that one day we would be at home in Jerusalem. …

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