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July 10, 1987 - Image 24

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-07-10

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

CLOSE-UP

THE ETHIOPIAN ABSORPTION

Has The
`Lost Tribe'
Been Lost
In Red Tape?

CHARLES HOFFMAN

Special to The Jewish News

erusalem — The arrival of the "lost
tribe" of Ethiopian Jews in Israel in
the early 1980s, first in a trickle and
later by the thousands, evoked for many
Israelis memories of the heroic period of
immigrant absorption in the early 1950s.
At that time, hundreds of thousands of
refugees, many of them backward and
destitute, were brought from the DP camps
of Europe or rescued from hostile Arab
lands and resettled in the newly indepen-
dent homeland of the Jewish people.
Despite the enormous difficulties and
hardships entailed in this effort, the rescue
expressed what Zionism was all about.
So when the Ethiopians arrived, after
centuries of struggle to preserve their
heritage and following a desperate and dar-
ing trek to freedom, many Israelis felt the
revived glow of the Zionist dream. But the
rescue of the Ethiopians also evoked less
appealing memories of a collective trauma
of the 1950s that haunts Israel to this day:

j

.

The writer is a journalist based in Jerusalem
who specializes in Jewish affairs and Israel-
Diaspora relations. His five-part series on the
Jewish Agency, written last year for the Detroit
Jewish News ("Where Do All Our Dollars Go?")
recently received the Simon Rockower Award.

24

FRIDAY, JULY 10, 1987

the mishandling of the absorption of hun-
dreds of thousands of Middle Eastern Jews
from Yemen, North Africa, Iraq and
elsewhere.
Despite certain differences, the similar-
ities between the Ethiopians and the more
backward of the Middle Eastern immi-
grants of the 1950s were compelling: Most
were from lands or regions that had little
or no contact with the modern west, which
meant that the newcomers were largely il-
literate and unfamiliar with modern
medicine and technology. In addition, they
brought cultural and religious traditions
that were alien to the westernized veteran
Israelis.
In the case of the Ethiopians, this
distance between them and their new socie-
ty was even greater, since their languages
of Amharic and Tigrinya were known by
few Israelis and their physical
characteristics set them sharply apart. In
addition, they had no knowledge of post-
biblical Judaism and their very status as
Jews was questioned by some rabbinic au-
thorities. This was indeed a "special" group
of immigrants, as absorption officials were
wont to say.
These officials were keenly aware, too, of
the controversies that raged in the 1970s
over the way the Middle Eastern im-

migrants had been treated by the
authorities in the 1950s and of the many
social problems that still plagued Israel as
a result of the mistakes made then. In deal-
ing with the Ethiopians, the officials of the
government and the Jewish Agency were
determined to avoid what they called the
"mistakes of the '50s."
Some of the mistakes of that era were in-
deed avoided, but others were not — and
some new mistakes were made. It is impor-
tant to step back now and reflect on this
most recent-absorption process, particular-
ly in light of the prospect of yet another
major emigration — with reports that
large numbers of Soviet Jews may soon be
arriving in Israel.
While there is no official statement on
what constitutes the "mistakes of the
'50s," it is generally agreed that many Mid-
dle Eastern immigrants suffered from the
following tendencies at the hands of the
authorities:
• An arrogant attitude that regarded
non-western cultures as inferior or
"primitive," a word which became a com-
mon term of abuse.
• A domineering and rigid bureaucracy
that made the immigrants dependent on
the authorities instead of fostering their
ability to function on their own.

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