Israel: The New Exodus

An ancient story is being rewritten in Israel, with immigrants from different cultures, races, continents, streaming in to a state that is challenged and renewed Iry their coming

A SECRETLY planned thirty-six-hour airlift brought 14,324 Ethiopians to Israel last May, and thousands more are eagerly waiting to come. More than 350,000 Soviet Jews have arrived during the past two years. Coping with this avalanche of immigrants is one of the greatest challenges Israel has ever faced.

And now, as the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union reel under economic hardships, Israelis are bracing themselves for the arrival of perhaps a million more immigrants over the next few years. Such a tremendous influx could be devastating economically. Israel’s population is only five million—about the same as Washington state’s—and, were this projection to hold, the country’s struggle to house and employ and educate the newcomers would be comparable to the United States’ attempting to absorb the entire population of France. About 40 percent of the new immigrants are unemployed, and government grants and loans have shrunk. Many of those employed are working at menial and temporary jobs unrelated to their training. Still, Israelis remain enthusiastic—welcoming the world’s Jews is the raison d’etre of the state. One of Israel’s first acts after independence, in 1948, was to open its borders to all Jews. Survivors of the Holocaust and Jews fleeing Muslim countries poured in, doubling the population of the new state. A poll last year showed that 85 percent of Israelis are in favor of welcoming more immigrants even though it means increasing taxes, which are already among the world’s highest.

THE DRAMATIC airlift from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv jolted villagers from one of the poorest countries on earth into the twentieth century. The onetime Soviet political dissident Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Soviet prison before immigrating to Israel in 1986, flew to Addis Ababa to witness the mass airlift of the “lost Jews.”

“It was important for me to go to Ethiopia,” he says. Sitting with me in his bustling Jerusalem office at the Zionist Forum, which lobbies on behalf of Soviet immigrants and helps them write résumés, look for jobs, and find housing, Sharansky held out photos of the trip. “There are no two Jewish communities more disparate. Ours [the Soviets’] is the most isolated spiritually from world Jewry, and the Ethiopians’ is the most isolated geographically. Ours is almost completely assimilated, while the Ethiopians preserved Judaism for centuries after being cut off. Soviets have almost no idea of Jewish communal life, whereas Ethiopians’ very survival and identity depended on close tribal communities. I was among the Israelis standing by the empty airplane in Africa to bring them out. In half an hour the two hundred seats were filled with four hundred Ethiopian Jews. This journey was the moment I had come to Israel for.”

After the four-hour flight, the Ethiopians wept as they touched the ground and found relatives who had survived starvation and disease during their long trek, in 1984—1985, to Sudan, whence they had been secretly airlifted to Israel. They wept at the Wailing Wall, thankful they had finally reached the Promised Land.

They almost didn’t make it. The ancient community of Ethiopian Jews numbered perhaps a million in the sixteenth century, but had since come close to extinction, caught in the midst of famine, civil war, and persecution. For centuries the landless black Jews have been massacred, sold into slavery, and derided as falasha (“strangers”) by their Christian and Muslim neighbors, who accuse them of having budda, or Satanic powers. Theories about their origins abound—they could be descendants of Jews who left Israel after the destruction of the First Temple; descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose son Menelik settled in Ethiopia; or members of the Lost Tribe of Dan. Believing for 2,500 years that they were the last remaining Jews on earth, these Ethiopians had been practicing ancient rituals from the Bible and praying in their grass synagogues for a return to the Land of Zion. The prayers were answered when Israeli aircraft arrived for the exodus, called Operation Solomon, just as rebel troops neared Addis Ababa.

But now the joy is mixed with culture shock. Hundreds more Ethiopians are arriving each month, and as they explore modern Israel in ill-fitting donated clothes, they enter computer shops featuring Nintendo and stare at nearly naked Israelis on the beach, who offend their modesty. Illiterate parents proudly watch their children pore over school books. The new immigrants gather in cafés, beauty parlors, and music shops run by veteran Ethiopian-Israelis and compare stories about life among so many non-black Jews.

The impact of the new Soviet immigrants is much more evident—it’s everywhere. Most hotels have Russian staffs, many shops display signs in Russian, and Israeli television not only presents a nightly news program in Russian but also airs programs with Russian subtitles. These immigrants, too, are experiencing culture shock. They ogle Israelis talking on car phones, inspect strange fruits called avocados and mangos in twenty-fourhour supermarkets with amazingly short lines, and stare in disbelief as Russian-speaking bank tellers explain the wonders of checks and credit cards.

Many are carrying cultural baggage that encumbers them in a job search. Many have never had to search for work before—they are used to being sent to jobs by the government. Many are in employment workshops, where they learn that jobs are advertised in newspapers, that eight-page résumés are unacceptable, and that they can speak on phones without fear that their conversations are being monitored.

Israel’s youngest immigrants, of course, are adjusting the most rapidly. At the kindergarten at the Mevasseret Zion Absorption Center an Ethiopian boy wearing a donated SHOP TILL YOU DROP T-shirt tells his Yugoslavian friend in broken Hebrew about Ninja Turtles. Nearby, a two-year-old girl sings a Lithuanian song to her black doll. Suddenly an Ethiopian girl starts drumming on a plastic pail and a blonde girl from Kiev jumps up and joins her Ethiopian classmates in an ancient Amharic dance. Children from Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Albania are playing in the sandbox—they, too, have just come to a new homeland.

THE INFLUX of Soviet Jews is already having an incalculable demographic, social, political, and economic impact. Almost half are academics or scientists. Some Israelis fantasize that along with a work force containing more college-educated people per capita than any other in the world and a huge reservoir of inexpensive professional labor, more foreign investment could turn their country into a Middle Eastern Silicon Valley.

Right now, however, the immigrant professionals are growing increasingly frustrated. Unemployment is rising, and they are barely surviving on government grants and loans. Lines are long at both the Ministry of Absorption and the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, where anxious Russian-speaking immigrants gather at daybreak.

Newcomers encounter a vexing bureaucratic maze. An inadequately prepared Israeli government can’t plan for the coming months, because it is impossible to forecast how many more immigrants will be arriving. No one even knows how many Jews there are in the former Soviet republics. Soviet census figures for 1989 put the number of Jews at 1.5 million, but Israeli officials say the real figure may currently be about 3 million. Sharansky predicts that “over a million Jews who have been sitting on their suitcases may now decide that Israel is less bad and finally leave.”

In December of 1990 more than 35,000 Soviet immigrants crowded into Ben-Gurion Airport. In the weeks before the attempted coup in the Soviet Union the flood of immigrants ebbed, because of the lack of jobs in Israel. Since the Soviet Union broke up, immigration has dropped again as Jews have opted to try out life in the republics. This past February only 4,233 newcomers arrived. “Potential immigrants have been getting letters and phone calls from friends in Israel warning them to wait until the job and housing situations improve,” Sharansky says. “But as the economies deteriorate, more will be eager to leave. In these unstable times Jews know antiSemitism will increase.”

Israel is unprepared to cope with a further large influx, warns Uri Gordon, the head of the Department of Immigration and Absorption at the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for bringing Jewish immigrants to Israel. “If they come, our housing and unemployment crises will reach new peaks,” he says. Already the number of job seekers has risen dramatically as thousands have finished their six-month-long Hebrew courses. On Friday afternoons the economic pinch is evident when markets close for the Sabbath and scores of Soviet immigrants rummage through trash bins and pick up leftover fruit and vegetables off the ground. Across the country virtuoso musicians perform on street corners instead of in concert halls. People are no longer surprised to discover that the attendant pumping gas is an award-winning chemist or that a formerly prominent surgeon is sweeping the streets.

Other immigrants are finding morelucrative work in the growing realm of crime. Hard-core professional criminals are recruiting Russian prostitutes and running “massage parlors" and sophisticated counterfeit-money and theft operations. Tel Aviv police officials predict that organized Russian crime may soon be their worst problem. Some Israelis are wondering whether this wave of immigration may turn bittersweet.

Some of the immigrants aren’t even Jews. Under Israel’s Law of Return, one Jewish grandparent qualifies a person and his or her spouse and children for automatic Israeli citizenship. A significant number of the Soviet Union’s Jews married non-Jews. Many are bringing elderly relatives (about 15 percent of the immigrants are over sixty-five); waiting lists for geriatric wards and old-age homes are becoming unmanageable.

At least 35,000 immigrants have another problem: they come from areas hit by the Chernobyl fallout. Israeli health services are strained by patients with radiation sickness seeking free care.

EHIOPIAN JEWS, too, are keeping health workers busy. At a Beersheba clinic near a new mobilehome camp, an Israeli doctor hears a group of patients gasping noisily. Asthma? he wonders. His Ethiopian-Israeli nurse-translator grins and explains that when these people gasp, it means “yes" in Amharic. A bearded, dignified-looking kes, or spiritual leader, in a white turban walks in. “Didn’t you take a teaspoon of the medicine?" the nurse asks with extreme respect. The kes didn’t know what a spoon was, so he used a ladle to take his medicine.

In the crowded clinic that serves the several hundred Ethiopians living at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hotel, children and their parents sit on chairs and on the floor, waiting patiently and silently. A woman’s face contorts in agony as she learns that her TB test is positive and that her young son has a potentially blinding eye disease. Nearby, a teenage girl receives antibiotics for an exotic intestinal parasite.

The refined, soft-spoken Ethiopians have charmed the Israelis. According to a poll conducted shortly after the airlift, 93 percent are in favor of their immigration. The Ethiopians arrived with no possessions, and Israelis overwhelmed them with so many clothes and other gifts that officials asked them to stop making donations.

“What other country would go through the danger and expense of rescuing poor blacks?” says Zimna Berhane, a hero to many Ethiopians because he has dedicated his life to bringing them out of the craggy highlands of Ethiopia and the squalid refugee camps of Sudan. “Never before have blacks been brought out of Africa in dignity and not in chains,” Berhane says. “I can’t believe that most of my people finally are here. This is my life’s dream.”

In 1954 Berhane and a group of eleven other children left Ethiopia and became the first Ethiopians educated in Israel. After graduation from high school they returned to Ethiopia and their isolated mountain villages to spend a few years teaching. Before the 1991 airlift Berhane returned again to Ethiopia, helping secretly to move thousands of Jews to Addis Ababa.

Until they left Jerusalem to work in the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa, Berhane and his New York-born wife, Susan, counseled new Ethiopian immigrants—most of whom are children under eighteen. “It’s especially hard on the women—about a fourth are widowed or divorced,” says Susan Berhane, who has been doing social work with Ethiopians since 1981. “At least, one problem they won’t have is color. We and our daughter have never felt any kind of discrimination problems. In Israel we’re not an integrated couple—we’re just a family.”

But Ethiopians are encountering other problems. Some are deeply depressed, having learned that their spouses and parents were among the thousands who died in the 1980s while escaping on foot to Sudanese refugee camps. “When some long-separated couples are reunited, the culture gap can be insurmountable,” Susan Berhane says. One man became distraught when he discovered that the wife and three children whom he last saw eight years ago in their village had turned into strangers—modern, loud Israelis. His children don’t speak Amharic or avert their eyes when they speak to adults; his wife, a dental hygienist, wears a mini-skirt and drives a car. In his straw hut he was the authority figure; in his high-rise apartment he feels helpless.

Living temporarily in crowded hotel rooms disrupts the Ethiopians’ patriarchal family traditions. With shelter, meals, and clothing provided free, the men feel their authority erode, especially when female Israeli officials tell them what to do. Because there are no private cooking facilities, families march into huge dining rooms at set hours and are served strange foods like soft-boiled eggs and turkey, and are encouraged to eat with forks and knives.

Hundreds of impatient Ethiopians have rented buses and moved themselves into new trailer camps even before the camps are connected to electricity, sewers, and roads. Relocating thousands of immigrants is a bureaucratic nightmare, especially since so many insist on living near relatives. One group living on a kibbutz near Haifa demanded to be moved more than a hundred miles to live with family in the Negev Desert. When officials didn’t respond immediately, the immigrants started a cross-country trek. Before they’d gone far, officials gave in.

Many have lost their relatives. Twenty-two-year-old Malaku Mukonen holds his baby, Israela, born just after he and his wife were airlifted to Israel. “I wish my parents could see her,” he says sadly, recalling how his parents died of starvation during the civil war. Just before rebels destroyed his mountain village, he and his wife left to walk the hundreds of miles to Addis Ababa. They waited for months in a slum near the Israeli embassy. Finally, on May 24, Zimna Berhane and other veteran Ethiopian-Israelis, including nurses and university students, led them to the first plane they’d ever seen. “When we landed, the soldiers were crying. The bus drivers were crying. People were so happy and they brought us so many things,” he says, pointing around his Jerusalem hotel room to the crib and the radio, tuned to the news in Amharic. “This is the Promised Land. We’re learning Hebrew and then I’ll go to vocational school and become a mechanic.” His wife, after serving their guests coffee, holds up an Israeli magazine and proudly points to a picture. It is the pop singer and model Meskie Shibru, whose Hebrew-Amharic songs have made it to the top of Israel’s charts.

IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union point proudly to “their" model, Valery Alphimov, who left Leningrad in 1990 and became a leading Israeli cover girl. But they get their greatest inspiration from hearing the success stories of the 180,000 Soviet Jews who came in the 1970s and early 1980s. Within five years of their arrival the income of these newcomers averaged a third higher than that of other Israelis. Fewer than five percent of the early Soviet Jews have emigrated from Israel. The immigrants coming today are different: most are highly assimilated and nonreligious. Unlike many earlier immigrants, who made the move out of Zionist convictions or to reconnect with Jewish roots, many of these new arrivals came to escape a disintegrating Soviet Union.

Construction cranes are ubiquitous as Israel experiences a huge housingconstruction boom. Despite a shortage of funds, the Scud attacks by Iratq, and the disruption caused by the Intifada’s strikes (most construction workers are Arabs from the West Bank or Gaza), construction has gone quickly—so quickly that the Housing Ministry has a severe budgetary debt. Now thousands of apartments are empty because they’re in outlying areas where there are no jobs or because new immigrants can’t afford them. In the meantime, Israel’s infrastructure—roads, water and sewer systems, electricity, telecommunications—is inadequate. Classrooms are so crowded that some students have studied in trailers and gyms.

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By far the most daunting problem is jobs. Nationally unemployment is about 11 percent—its highest level since the mid-1960s.

“For years people have been demonstrating for Soviet immigration under the slogan ‘Let My People Go,'" says Micki Shafir, the former executive director of the World Zionist Congress. “Now we’re seeing hundreds of Russian doctors, engineers, and musicians demonstrating and chanting, ‘Let My People Work.'”

“If the government doesn’t initiate large national projects to absorb them, more and more will simply view Israel as a transit stop,'' Uri Gordon, of the Jewish Agency, says. “The present government’s lack of any comprehensive absorption policy seems to be heading toward disaster. What we need is leadership and a government willing to reshape its absorption policies.”

MANY NEW immigrants complain that they’re caught in a maze of overlapping ministries and bureaucratic infighting. “Instead of crisis management we have gross mismanagement,”says Hirsh Goodman, the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, an Israeli weekly magazine. “The ministers involved have too many party and personal interests.”

These interests mean that catering to their ultra-Orthodox constituents takes priority over helping the absorption effort. As part of the price for their continued participation in the fragile Likud coalition, small ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox parties have forced the Likud to give them control of ministries that directly affect the immigrants’ lives. Bearded fundamentalist bureaucrats control the Ministries of Absorption, the Interior, and Labor and Welfare. According to a recent poll, most Israelis have an “unfavorable” opinion of them. “My six-year-old son suddenly says he wants to go to synagogue, and he refuses to eat my food because it’s not kosher,” says Ina Krimetskim, a former math teacher who immigrated from Moscow in June. “What’s he learning in school? Why are there so many Orthodox teachers?” Krimetskim is a secular Jew and, like nine out of ten Soviet immigrants, did not know what a Passover seder was when she arrived. “I’m Jewish, and this is my country. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about Jewish culture or history, but we don’t want to drown in all this religion.” Affected as she was by the policies of religious immigration officials, Krimetskim was amazed when I told her that about 80 percent of Israeli Jews are non-Orthodox.

Zev Katz, a professor of Soviet studies at the Hebrew University, is doing research on the new immigrants. “Often,” he says, “wherever the Ethiopian or Soviet immigrant turns, religious people control his life. Government institutions important to him are run mainly by religious fundamentalists. The absorption of Soviet immigrants, a mostly nonreligious, highly technical, European-educated elite, is largely in the hands of a nonmodern, partly fundamentalist, Orthodox bureaucracy. They are bent on directing funds to Orthodox institutions more than to the immigrants. They are doing whatever they can to convert the Soviets and Ethiopians to their way of thinking.”

Katz says that he was “shocked” when he and a team of researchers visited some Hebrew classes for new immigrants and discovered that prayers were being taught instead of grammar. “Some yeshivas [religious schools] are offering immigrants money to attend their classes,” he says. Avner Shaki, the Minister of Religion, is currently under investigation for misallocating government funds, both to religious organizations and to his relatives. “An ultraOrthodox state within a state” is developing, says the political commentator Ze’ev Chafers. “These black-hatted bureaucrats hate the country, its Zionist ideology and democratic values.”

According to the pollster Hanouch Smith, only 29 percent of Israelis think that the Minister of Absorption, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, is doing a good job. Although many of the country’s kibbutzim want to take in Ethiopian immigrants. Peretz said last June on national television that he opposed sending Ethiopians to the kibbutzim, because there they would be forced “into apostasy and crime.” The head of the Kibbutz Movement, Muki Tzur, thinks it’s “intolerable that an anti-Zionist Minister who doesn’t understand the first thing about Zionism should be in charge of its most vital part—the absorption of immigrants.” When a train hit a school bus several years ago, killing thirty-one Israeli children, Peretz said it was God’s revenge, because their parents had not obeyed Jewish religious law.

Rabbi Menahem Porush, who runs the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, is busier waging war against secular Israelis than creating jobs. He wants to keep businesses from operating on holy days and to close Ben-Gurion Airport on the Sabbath.

Another ultra-Orthodox politician, Rabbi Moshe Ze’ev Feldman, who heads the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, openly gives a disproportionately high number of “special allocations” to his favorite ultra-Orthodox institutions. His committee gave a $455,000 “special allocation” to a Jerusalem yeshiva with only twenty students—the yeshiva where Peretz happens to worship. Meanwhile, police are investigating the Minister of the Interior, Arieh Deri, for bribery, fraud, and misuse of government funds. Deri allegedly illegally funneled millions of dollars of government money into religious institutions tied to his ultra-Orthodox party.

THE overwhelmingly secular newcomers (only about one percent support religious parties) should weaken the ultra-Orthodox parties’ hold on Israeli politics. Thus leftand right-wing parties are courting the Soviet immigrants for the national elections on June 23. These new voters make up about eight percent of the electorate. (There are now about 45,000 Ethiopian-Israelis, too few to have a significant political impact.) But leading pollsters predict that the newcomers will split closely along the same party lines as other Israelis, with a smaller number voting for Russian immigrants’ parties.

Politicians from all parties are trying to woo the new voters, offering seminars and lectures and placing ads in the more than two dozen Russian-language newspapers. Most parties have enlisted Russian-speakers to attract recruits and are offering free bus tours of the country which mix sightseeing and politics.

Since most Soviet immigrants resent many things that remind them of communism or socialism, Labor activists try to explain that a kibbutz is not a kolkhoz. The Labor Party no longer opens its meetings with the singing of the Socialist “International,” has canceled formal May Day celebrations, and is now debating whether to eliminate the party’s red flag.

“Soviet Jews are confused, and their votes are up for grabs,” Natan Sharansky says. “If the big parties want them, they will have to prove they can deliver not only slogans but also economic and political changes.” Some new immigrants are expected to make a protest vote against the Likud by voting for Labor; others may vote for a Russian immigrants’ party that promises to promote their interests. At a time “that can determine the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people,” Sharansky adds, “it is astounding how little of the legislators’ attention is taken by immigration and absorption.”

“Who understands politics here?” says Boris Persitz, a gastroenterologist who belongs to a cultural club in Jerusalem that also organizes discussion groups to help new immigrants understand the Israeli political scene. “Most of us are still going through the culture shock of living in a democracy—we have no idea what it means. With the tragic mess back home, I’m just enjoying being a free Jew.” Persitz, fifty-one, left Moscow last June, and now edits a medical journal for newly arrived doctors. “There’s a lot of complaining about jobs, but we’ve got to be realistic,” he says. “Even before thousands of us doctors came here, Israel already had one of the world’s highest percentages of doctors per capita. Many of us will have to change careers, and I’m willing. It’s part of the price I have to pay for this new life, and it’s worth it.”

If the new immigrants are now reshaping Israeli domestic politics, they are also affecting the future of ArabIsraeli relations. Meron Benvenisti, an expert on Palestinian-Israeli relations and a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, says, “Arabs are worried that this immigration is upsetting the demographic balance—that they’ll lose the battle of the womb. To them, more Jews in the country means more settlements in the Territories and more roadblocks to peace. They also see that Israelis are turning inward, more concerned with looking after Vladimir from Russia and Solomon from Ethiopia than with dealing with Feisal.” Israeli Arabs (there are more than 800,000) are worried about their equal rights, he adds. “They’re afraid that money due to their towns will be given to immigrants instead.”

The local Arab press has been running articles predicting that Jewish employers will hire new immigrants to replace the 110,000 Arabs from the Territories who are working in Israel. But so far the influx of immigrants has not substantially affected Arab employment. Benvenisti predicts that with the economy growing so fast—the GNP is expected to increase by about five percent in 1992—there will be a continued demand for Arab workers.

“We Palestinians are not against Jewish immigration to the Israel of 1948 borders so long as it’s not at the expense of Israeli Arabs,” says Madi Abdul-Hadi, who heads an East Jerusalem think tank. “But if Jewish immigrants are settled in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, it’s an attack on our survival, and we will fight this aggression with all means available.”

Yasser Arafat has been more explicit. In an April, 1990, meeting with PLO officials, he called for Palestinians to “open fire on the new Jewish immigrants, be they Soviet, falasha, or anything else. It would be disgraceful of us were we to see hordes of immigrants conquering our land and settling our territory and not raise a finger. I want you to shoot, on the ground or in the air, at every immigrant who thinks our land is a playground and that immigration to it is a vacation or picnic.”

IN THE 1970s many poor Sephardic Jews who had fled Muslim countries in the 1950s were bitter about the welcome that the first big wave of Soviet immigrants was getting. In a striking change, today 80 percent of Sephardic Jews look favorably upon the new immigrants.

“Times have changed because we’re really part of the society now,” says Yigal Rahamin, a Kurdish taxi driver who rents his furnished four-bedroom apartment to fifteen Russian immigrants for only $350 a month. “Now we’re better off and can help immigrants.” Rahamin’s family was part of a mass exodus of 110,000 Jews from Iraq in 1950—1951. They lived in a sprawling refugee shantytown. “We know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” he says as he drives up a hill to the highrise Shalom Hotel to donate toys to the Russian and Ethiopian children living there. “We know what it’s like to be killed just because we’re Jews.”

“This immigration is a miracle for Israel,” says A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s foremost novelists. “We lost a third of our people in the Holocaust, and we thought we’d lost both the Jews of Ethiopia and these Russians who were cut off from Judaism and forced to assimilate. It’s a victory for Zionism that they’re home. Now we need to make peace with the Arabs. With our new wealth of technical manpower, we could cooperate with the Arab states on magnificent common projects that could make the Middle East flourish again. It’s not impossible—who ever thought that the Soviet Union would disintegrate?”

Donna Rosenthal