Israelis turn out to greet latest refugees Ethiopian rescue helps nation's pride

May 27, 1991|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- The 1,200 Ethiopian Jews filling every room of the Diplomat Hotel-turned-absorption-center were almost outnumbered yesterday by the Israeli volunteers who streamed through the lobby, looking for some way to get involved.

"I just wanted to see this, be a part of it somehow," said Avi Rozen, a merchant, who watched smiling as his wife sat on the hard marble floor with other volunteers. She had pitched in, unasked, to teach eight Ethiopian children how to draw with crayons.

Across the country yesterday, Israelis opened their hearts to the 14,000 Ethiopians who were brought to Israel almost overnight in a stunning airlift that sent spirits soaring.

In newspapers, on the radio and across television screens, the story of the operation and the months of secret negotiations behind it was recounted over and over again.

Israelis, reminded of the nation's past military triumphs and relieved for a couple of days from the gloom that usually characterizes this nation's mood, gloried in all of it.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had been on hand at the airport to greet the first planeload of Ethiopians on Friday afternoon, thanked the Bush administration.

Late last week, he said, the acting Ethiopian president, Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, had said he would not let the Jews go unless President Bush wrote a letter formally asking him to.

The letter was written.

Mr. Bush "did not hesitate for a minute," Mr. Shamir said, adding: "This operation could not have taken place without the full, devoted help of the United States."

As taken as they were by stories of the intrigue, Israelis were more interested in getting involved them selves.

By the hundreds, they poured into the hotels, trailer camps and hostels housing the newcomers to drop off bundles of used clothing and toys while also marveling at the Ethiopians who wandered around smiling, most still wearing their native dress.

At the same time, in rooms throughout the Diplomat Hotel, new immigrants were seen tentatively trying on strange shirts, pants, or dresses.

One little girl sat in the hallway un-self-consciously wearing a frilly red party dress that the original owner had probably bought for a wedding or bar mitzvah.

In the Diplomat and other absorption centers, hundreds of Ethiopians who came here in the first great immigration wave in 1984 happily cried as they embraced brothers or sisters, even husbands and wives, that they had not seen in seven years.

But a Jewish agency worker told of some less pleasant reunions that were also occurring yesterday.

Years ago, some of the 1984 immigrants had given up any hope of seeing their relatives again, she said, "and now they have remarried and started new families."

"We've had a few cases of wives coming here with the children to find out that they have lost their husbands," she said.

After counting the newcomers yesterday, government officials adjusted the census down from the 14,500 they had believed were transported on Friday and Saturday to a total of 14,087.

While Soviet Jewish immigrants are given a grant and then allowed to do as they please, the new Ethiopian immigrants, because of their simple backgrounds, will be fed and housed by the state until next spring -- being expected during that time to learn the language and acquire job skills.

Most of the earlier Ethiopian immigrants have blended into society and now have jobs, homes, and fully independent lives.

But officials acknowledge that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others who came in 1984 still remain wards of the state.

Immigration officials vowed not to make the same mistakes again.

Simcha Dinitz, head of the Jewish Agency, the large quasi-governmental institution that is in charge of the immigrants during their first year, also made clear yesterday that none of the Ethiopians would be housed in the occupied territories while under the state's care.

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