Menorah welcomed Terry Morris visiting from Israel, who is Vice Chairman of ESRA (English Speaking Residents Association) to a day time meeting where a small but enthusiastic audience welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the Ethiopian community in Israel and how ESRA has helped the community to help itself move forward.
History of the Ethiopian Jewish Community and their arrival in Israel
Terry started by outlining history of Ethiopian Community which dates back 3,000 years. They have an oral tradition that they are descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba or that they are the lost Tribe of Dan. They call themselves Beta Israel – the House of Israel. They were hillside farmers and mainly speak Amharic. The community in Ethiopia faced hardship and anti-Semitism and were known as Falashas by their neighbours meaning “the alien ones, or the invaders.”
In 1935 the Italians invaded Ethiopia and the community was under threat. Ethiopia’s ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie first fled his country but then returned to power in 1941, but the situation for the Beta Israel worsened.
Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup by Colonel Mengistu, and the oppression deepened of the community, including forced conscription for boys at the age of 12. However the community always dreamed of returning to Jerusalem.
By 1974 they were recognised as Jews by the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis of Israel. From 1975 – 84 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel, but 15,000 were left behind.
The situation worsened with famine, but Israel and the US supplied the community with food relief. In 1984 Operation Moses took place with the CIA and Mossad airlifting 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from the Sudan to Israel. 12,000 left by foot to a secret meeting place in Sudan but 4,000 died on the way due to starvation and disease. Ethiopians over the past 3 years, have adopted Yom Yerushalim as a Day to remember those that died coming to Israel with Operation Moses, and ceremonies take place with candles being lit for family members who have died.
In 1991 on Friday 24th May Operation Solomon took place with a total of 34 El Al Boeing 747 jumbo jets bringing over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just over 24 hours. On one flight along there were more than 1,000 Ethiopian Jews transported.
There are now about 135,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent living in Israel. 92,000 were born in Ethiopia.
In 2016 at the Ethiopian Commemoration, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said “You are flesh and blood part of our nation, and equal amongst equals.” Unfortunately this is not true.
Present day issues in Israel
Despite there being 26 Ministries providing programmes for the Ethiopian community now in Israel, there has been problems with lack of co-ordination and absorption. 51.7% of Ethiopian families live in poverty, and 65% of their children are in poverty. The suicide rate is 7 times the Israeli average. Men are no longer automatically the head of the household, and they are no longer cultivating the land. Family stability has suffered as a result. There is racial discrimination which is putting more pressure on families. There are not enough votes from the community to gain support from the Government to take effective action and racism continues. This is in contrast with the Yemenite community which came over in the 50’s and 60’s who have been absorbed successfully and are not discriminated against in the same way as this new community.
In 2015 Damas Pakada, an Israeli Ethiopian soldier, was beaten up by police officers for no reason. This was followed by rioting in several different cities in Israel.
However some Ethiopian Israelis have begun to do well in Israel. There are now a few high ranking Military officers in the IDF; in 2013 an Israeli born Ethiopian become Israel’s Beauty Queen; there are a few Knesset members from different political parties, and others who are rising in the their respective fields as actors, musicians, writers and athletes.
The current situation is that there are still over 9,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia, many living in poor conditions in refugee camps, and many who wish to emigrate to Israel. The Falash Mura are of Jewish descent but have converted to Christianity because of missionary activity or social pressures over the last century. Immigration from Ethiopia closed in 2013 and now only a small number of those Falash Mura that have family connections in Israel will be allowed to come and will have to undergo conversion.
ESRA feels that the Israeli Government is not doing its job to help tackle the many problems of the Ethiopian community and to aid integration. As the largest English speaking non-profit making voluntary organisation they are prioritising this work with this deprived community and also with immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Background to ESRA
ESRA was formed 37 years and now has over 800 volunteers and a very small office staff team. There are 20 community projects for disadvantaged individuals and communities and also enrichment projects. ESRA organises regular social and cultural activities. There are 19 branches of ESRA across the country and volunteers are involved in a whole variety of projects including English Tutoring Programme where 200 volunteers tutor in schools. The membership dues fund activity and there is also municipal support for specific projects. There are two Nearly New shops and three Book shops.
How ESRA is making a vital difference
ESRA’s support for Ethiopian community is with the aim that the community will be able to help itself in the future. ESRA’s projects include supplying computers at community centres, dance groups, sewing centres, and centres where teenage schoolgirls can do their homework and cook their own food and access support. ESRA’s Ethiopian Dance Group project in Netanya in recent years was invited by the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, to perform at his official Residence.
“Students build the Community” takes place in four different areas in Netanya. The Municipal Authority matches the funding and in all 39 students tutor more than 150 local primary age school children. ESRA supports these students by paying for their student accommodation and some other costs. The students attend local colleges and universities and come from different backgrounds with 34 out of the 39 student tutors being Ethiopian. The students agree to spend 8 hours a week to help with school work, social integration and community projects. They support, mentor and help bridge the gap between the children and their parents. After a year, the students can give extra time to the children in return for a scholarship.
The children only speak Hebrew and sometimes there is a breakdown in communication in the family. The projects mean that through education a community is being built that will integrate into the larger society of benefit to all.
One of the “Students build the Community” projects takes place in Hephzibah, a poor area at the far edge of Netanya, where the Ethiopian community is concentrated. The community used to be blighted with crime so high that police were not willing to go into the area. As a result of this project the crime rate has fallen and there has been many positive changes taken place in the community. The Students supported by ESRA are positive role models for the children and for the parents. The Students become empowered and enthusiastic and develop leadership skills of use to their lives in the future.
There are a total of four such projects in Netanya which are supported by ESRA and also by the Municipality. The cost that ESRA contributes to the projects is over £20,000 each.
ESRA has recently employed a Researcher to help with Evaluation of the projects the results of which have been very positive to date.
The Ethiopian community today faces much prejudice and racism. They are not a community of scholars and have sometimes not been recognised as “Jews” which leads to problems of integration unlike the Yemeni community and the Jews from Russia. Further advances will come about through increasing numbers achieving higher levels of education. Over time, “Students build a Community” projects will greatly help young people to do better at secondary school, which will have a profound long term effect on their families and their community’s future prospects.
There are many ways that Menorah members can assist ESRA in this valuable work. Do check out the ESRA magazines in the Library, and give generously to the Kol Nidre appeal some of which will go to support ESRA with these projects.
Terry has offered to take members visiting Israel to find out more about these projects for themselves.
To find out more how you can help then do get in touch with