For Ethiopian Israelis, ecstasy yields to bitterness Joblessness, bias causing stress

September 22, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The storybook exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel has led to a reality of frustration.

Some 14,000 Ethiopians were snatched last year from the pincers of war and hunger in a bold Israeli airlift. They arrived to an ecstatic welcome, joining 23,000 other Ethiopians who had made the perilous journey to the land of their prophesies in an earlier exodus.

But now the tears of joy have dried. Sixteen months later, the new immigrants face vexing problems:

* Despite a government promise to find them houses in one year, virtually all the new immigrants still live in crowded hotels, converted dormitories or temporary mobile home parks.

* Only some have jobs; most are in low-paid, menial-labor occupations.

* There is little integration. Many Ethiopians are in isolated camps. Schoolchildren have been shunned from public schools in Haifa. Home builders have refused to sell to the black families for fear of losing white buyers.

* Most insulting to the newcomers, Israeli religious authorities remain skeptical of the "Jewishness" of the Ethiopians. Only one rabbi in the country will marry them. Their own religious leaders, who taught the Jewish Torah for centuries, are not recognized by the chief rabbis here.

"Why did we come to Israel if we aren't going to be treated as Jews?" demands David Mangistu, who was imprisoned, beaten and tortured in his long struggle to reach what he thought was the Promised Land from war-torn Ethiopia.

The new Ethiopians have a reputation for their patience and politeness in a country known for neither. But in recent months, ++ they have staged marches on Jerusalem, begun hunger strikes, and held a sit-in that turned briefly violent and led to the arrest of 16.

"They just kept everything inside them for a long time," said Babu Yacov, an Ethiopian leader. "Finally, it had to come out."

There are two views. Some working with the immigrants believe the Ethiopians are undergoing relocation pains suffered by every new group. Within five or 10 years -- and certainly in a generation -- Ethiopians will meld into Israeli society, this view holds.

But others worry that the Ethiopians will become a permanent black underclass in a white society, relegated to government-created slums and toiling away at menial jobs.

"I think the damage has been done," said Avi Bitow, who arrived in 1980. "I'm very pessimistic. I'm not sure the government will be able to evacuate" the mobile homes.

"It seems like the whole thing is exploding, but . . . it's a normal process," counters Arnon Mantver, who is in charge of immigration and absorption for the Jewish Agency. "There is no way to do it easily."

The Jewish origins of this handsome people remain a mystery. Their own oral lore teaches they are descended from a band of Jews who spirited the Ark of the Covenant, built for Moses to hold the Ten Commandments, out of the way of Nebuchadnezzar's armies in the first century B.C.

Other theories declare them the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or Jews of Moses' Exodus who failed to get through the parted waters of the Red Sea in time. Whatever the truth, rabbinical authorities accepted them as Jews 400 years ago.

Only recently, though, have they been able to fulfill their ambition to go to Jerusalem.

"When I was a boy, I was always told from my family about Jerusalem, the land of milk and honey," said Rahamin Elazar, 36. "It was the holy place, paradise, and we were supposed to go to fulfill the commandment."

In 1975, Israel began to try to extract the Jews from Ethiopia. The trickle became a brief flood in 1984, when 7,500 were flown out LTC in "Operation Moses." The flow then faltered. But in May 1991, as the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was collapsing, Israel paid a fortune to Ethiopian forces for the freedom of Ethiopian Jews in an adventure that became known as Operation Solomon.

In a frantic, 30-hour air shuttle of 40 flights, they flew out most of the remaining 14,200 Jews just as civil war overtook Addis Ababa.

Few Ethiopians express any longing to return to Ethiopia. But they also say they are disillusioned.

.1l "We did expect it would be different here," said a young man, 24, who has taken the Hebrew name Shai Shalom. He has lived at an "absorption center" -- near the Israeli port city of Ashkelon -- since he came.

The setting, by the Mediterranean shore, is peaceful. But after 16 months with his family of 10 jammed into a two-room cottage, eating Western food in the dining hall, with little prospect of leaving soon, he is not at peace.

"It's very crowded. There's three or four people to a bed. People fight," he said. "I tried to get a job, but I haven't been able to. The only work we can do is manual labor or construction. I don't know when we will ever get a house."

In the flush of Operation Solomon, the new arrivals went to hotels. Many had never seen modern plumbing. The government promised, unrealistically, that all the immigrants would have houses in one year.

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