Israel shifts its policy on taking Ethiopians Legal, social issues end mass migration

move draws protests

July 15, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Special correspondent Jessica Lazar contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- A week after the final government airlift of Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel last month, thousands demonstrated here in support of those left behind.

Kenu Dervo's husband and small son were among the protesters outside the prime minister's office. The family had been in Israel five days when organizers in the Ethiopian Jewish community called the march. A similar campaign of public pressure had made it possible for the Dervos to emigrate here.

The family was among the 3,600 Ethiopians brought to Israel since last year even though their Jewish ancestry is in dispute. They are known as Falas Mura, Christian Ethiopians who claim Jewish roots. Their arrival ends a 12-year operation to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, an effort that brought in about 51,000 immigrants.

Israel will continue to accept immigrants from Ethiopia, but on a case-by-case basis, said Shlomo Molla, an immigration official. The policy shift from groups to individuals has raised concerns about the welfare of Jews living in remote corners of Ethiopia and of relatives of the new Israelis who remain in the capital, Addis Ababa.

It represents Israel's attempt to control Ethiopian immigration and ensure that new arrivals meet the criteria of the country's Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born of a Jewish mother or who is a convert to Judaism. Non-Jewish spouses and close family members also can immigrate under the law.

"Every Jew who practices Judaism is welcome," said Molla, an Ethiopian who came here in 1984 at age 17. "No one is saying, 'No more [immigration].' What we are saying is, we have to be very careful that other people aren't coming."

The story of the Ethiopian immigration began with the daring airlifts of 1984 and 1991 that rescued a rural, tribal religious minority from famine, poverty and war. But as word spread that immigration to Israel was possible, many Ethiopians, including non-Jews, left their villages and flocked to the Jewish-sponsored compound in Addis Ababa.

Some claimed their families had converted to Christianity because of persecution. As they waited for word on their request to come to Israel, many began practicing Judaism again.

Their arrival strained relief operations at the compound, and their plight raised religious and social issues for Israeli officials trying to integrate a Third World people into a fast-paced, industrialized modern society.

The government decided last year to bring about 3,600 of them here, saying this would reunite families. The last arrived June 25.

Kenu Dervo and her family live in a complex of mobile homes on the outskirts of Jerusalem that houses about 800 new immigrants, the majority Ethiopians. A petite woman of 27, she wore a long, purple dress of batik cotton. A small cross is tattooed on her forehead, an ornament often worn by Christian converts. When asked why she wanted to come to Israel, Dervo says shyly, "It is our country.

No longer 'besieged'

"In Ethiopia, we felt besieged. We had a hard life. In Ethiopia, I was afraid to sleep. But here I can sleep in peace," she said in her native Amharic. "I sleep easy because this is a place where there are other Jews."

While Israel offered Ethiopians a chance at a better life, the new immigrants have confronted social, religious and cultural difficulties despite unprecedented government aid.

Many Ethiopian families initially were settled in mobile home camps near small towns and cities. Although the first large wave of immigrants -- about 6,700 -- arrived in Operation Moses in 1984, it was only in 1993 that the government began a special mortgage program to help them move out of temporary housing and buy apartments.

Of the 3,620 families living in mobile home compounds in 1993, more than 80 percent had moved out by May 1996, according to a March 1998 study by two Hebrew University professors.

The report by Steven Kaplan and Hannah Salamon noted that as they moved out, others continued to move in.

Education for the new immigrants was of special concern because more than 50 percent were school-age children.

Most Ethiopian children were sent to religious public schools. While the government wanted to avoid concentrating them, "the Education Ministry often found itself with entire schools which were 60 to 70 percent Ethiopian," according to the Kaplan-Salamon report.

During the 1996-1997 school year, Ethiopian children accounted for more than 25 percent of the pupils in 25 elementary schools, the report said.

Graduations up

The research also found that the rate of Ethiopians completing high school graduation exams has increased from 7 percent in 1994-1995 to 12 percent in 1996-1997. But the newcomers still lag far behind the percentage of Jewish and Arab students who pass the exams.

Financial aid packages and pre-college programs for Ethiopians have helped increase their numbers in colleges and universities, the report found.

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