Home inFocus Israel: Refuge and Renaissance (Spring 2018) Ethiopian Aliyah: An Identity-Building Journey

Ethiopian Aliyah: An Identity-Building Journey

Pnina Agenyahu Spring 2018
Ethiopian-born Israeli model and winner of Miss Israel 2013, Yityish “Titi” Aynaw visits the National Press Club in Washington. (Photo: Albert Teich)

During preparations for Israel’s much-anticipated 70th birthday celebration, it was natural to look back with pride on the relatively young country’s various success stories. When it comes to my own chapter in the decades-long story of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish immigration, absorption, and assimilation, I am flooded with the myriad thoughts and emotions that continue to indelibly shape my identity.

I departed Ethiopia at age 3 in November 1984, with my mother literally carrying me on her back for a walk of 14 days and 15 nights until we reached Israel. At the time, from 1984-1985, Operation Moses facilitated the aliyah of 6,364 Jews from refugee camps in Sudan via intermediate countries by foot, plane, and boat. In 1977, Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam banned Jewish immigration to Israel, necessitating efforts like Operation Moses that are known as “aliyah of rescue.”

Life in Ethiopia was very simple for my family. We grew up in a small, modest village. There was no significance attached to higher education or individual success. Life revolved around the community and the family unit, especially child-rearing. Each individual knew his or her place and function in the world and did not dispute it. There was substantial importance associated with the dignity of one’s elders and with other authority figures.

Questions of Identity

My transition to Israel was challenging not necessarily because I needed to learn a new language and adjust to Israeli culture, but due to the sharp transition between the values of Ethiopia’s simple world to the Jewish State’s emphasis on the power of the individual. This was not taught at immigrant absorption centers. Nobody explicitly spelled out the gap that exists between the older and younger generations. As someone who immigrated to Israel at such a young age, I did not vividly remember Ethiopia, but the values of my past life were constantly present in my parents’ home. Like many other immigrants, I was forced to address the gap between what was expected of me at home and what was waiting for me on the outside.

How did I ultimately acclimate to life in Israel? I constantly asked myself questions of identity, belonging, and self-determination—and gradually attained the answers. As a child, I wanted to understand: How could I be like everyone else? Why am I different? In school and around my neighborhood, I was the only girl of Ethiopian origin and the only black person. Small details of my life also accentuated my differences. For instance, everyone had books at home, while I needed to borrow books from the public library (a 30-minute walk from my home) or from school.

History of Ethiopian Aliyah

While I was grappling with this personal transformation and with finding my place in Israeli society, thousands of my peers were either on a parallel journey or arriving anew. During the decade that followed Mengistu’s rise to power in 1977, Ethiopian immigration to Israel was clandestine, and was managed by the Israeli government along with the Jewish Agency. Suffering persecution at the hands of Ethiopia’s Marxist regime for holding Jewish educational and Zionist activities, many Jewish villagers became refugees.

The first wave of refugees, including my family, traveled all the way to Israel by foot with virtually no aid. Understanding the intense need, the Mossad intelligence agency, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Jewish Agency teamed to establish more effective procedures and improved conditions for Ethiopian aliyah. The IDF and Mossad began to bring Ethiopian Jews to safety in Israel, and the Jewish Agency welcomed and absorbed the refugees, housing them in youth villages and special sites established for this purpose.

Following Operation Moses from 1984-1985, a total of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews moved closer to Addis Ababa – the center for aliyah activities in Ethiopia – between 1988 and 1991. In May 1991, 14,000 Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel aboard IDF, El Al, and Ethiopian Airlines aircraft as part of Operation Solomon. From 1992-1997, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency assisted Ethiopian Jews from the Qwara Province to reach the Jewish State.

The story of mass Ethiopian aliyah appeared to close in 2013 when the Jewish Agency sponsored what had been considered its final group flight from Ethiopia and closed its Gondar center. But in November 2015, the Israeli government announced its intention to bring a new wave of up to 9,000 Ethiopians to the Jewish State by 2020. Immediately, the Jewish Agency put into place the infrastructure needed to conduct pre-aliyah services in Gondar and comprehensive absorption services in Israel. In October 2016, a group of 63 new immigrants from Ethiopia arrived in Israel and were reunited with their families.

Coming Full Circle

As an Ethiopian immigrant who now works for the Jewish Agency, the organization that helped make my community’s aliyah dreams into a reality, I have also come full circle. Thirty-four years after my immigration—about half of the State of Israel’s history—I believe that Ethiopian olim [immigrants to Israel] have managed to bridge the gap between our generation and that of our parents. Moving forward, our children will experience the same generational challenge.

Thirty-four years ago, I was a 3-year-old girl who crossed a country with a young mother for weeks and survived in a refugee camp in Sudan under disgraceful conditions for months. Now, I am a mother myself, to children who benefit from a quality education and will not lack any food at their table. Yet questions on being a refugee continue to arise for me due to the current controversy on Israel’s policy toward African migrants and asylum-seekers. I am frustrated when my non-Ethiopian friends ask me whether I support or oppose expulsion of illegal migrants, because it is not a simple question that can be answered in an instant.

My heart aches for refugees and their plight. It is not lost on me that I, too, was once in their situation. Ethiopian immigrants like myself were once refugees in a foreign country, and we survived. But it was not an accident. We survived because of the kindness, generosity, and proactivity of the people, and organizations who helped us.

Absorption Lifeline

Since the early 1950s, the Jewish Agency has assisted more than 90,000 Ethiopians with their aliyah—preparing the future Israelis with several months of education in Hebrew, Judaism, and Israeli culture; arranging for their immigration visas; and paying for their transportation to Israel.

Our organization also provides the immigrants’ first home in Israel: up to two years of simple, but comfortable accommodations in one of the 10 Absorption Centers for Ethiopians that are operated by the Jewish Agency. The centers are dedicated to the specific cultural needs of Ethiopian immigrants. Additionally, four Jewish Agency absorption centers for olim (immigrants) from around the world including from Ethiopia. In 2017, Jewish Agency absorption centers served a total of 3,800 Ethiopian immigrants.

Jewish Agency programming for Ethiopian olim touches all facets of their lives.

When immigrants leave their temporary accommodations in absorption centers for their own private housing, the Jewish Agency gifts them the brand-new kitchen appliances and furniture that they used in the center, so that they will have basic furnishings in their new homes.

Meanwhile, “Yesodot: Educational Services for Children of Ethiopian Immigrants” provides formal and informal educational programs for Ethiopian children and young adults who live in absorption centers, helping new immigrants from preschool through 12th grade close educational gaps they confront when acculturating to Israeli schools. In 2017, Yesodot programs reached 1,200 youths.

Yesodot’s services include: preparation for first grade via tutoring provided by experienced teachers; “Water Wings,” a formal after-school program that reinforces Hebrew, math, and English skills among children ages 6-14; educational summer camps for children ages 4-18 including field trips and other enrichment activities; a bar/bat mitzvah program that engages pre-adolescents in Jewish studies; “My First Library,” which facilitates Hebrew literacy for Ethiopian children and their parents by encouraging reading in Hebrew through storytime events and book distribution; “My Toy Box,” which offers guided, cross-cultural activities for Ethiopian children and their parents that encourage time spent together as a family; a transitions course for Ethiopian men and women that builds cultural understanding and adaptation skills to help families thrive in their new culture; health and mental health services such as dental care, emotional care for children, and care for children with AIDS or other special needs; and vocational training programs that prepare Ethiopian immigrants for Israel’s work culture.

Appreciating Privilege

There is always room for greater integration of immigrant populations such as Ethiopian olim. In Israeli society, it is precisely from each ethnic community’s differences that a more harmonious society will ultimately emerge. The Jewish Agency is doing its part to ensure a better life for olim in need at every step of the journey, from immigration to absorption to assimilation.

It is heartwarming to me that so many young Ethiopian Israelis identify with the reality of today’s African refugees. Even the generation born with the freedoms enjoyed in the Jewish State remembers and understands that their parents were once refugees.

As a former refugee myself, I continue to appreciate the rights and privileges which I have as a citizen of Israel. The challenges that I experienced in order to reach this point have made me the woman who I am today.

Pnina Agenyahu is Director of Interfaces and Synergy at the Strategic, Planning and Content Unit of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Previously, she was the senior shlicha of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.