A personal account of the mass immigration from Ethiopia in the 1980s

By Tom Segev, April 18, 2008
The Israeli historian and writer offers a personal account of the mass immigration from Ethiopia and its wider context They came from some 100 countries and spoke 100 tongues. More than three million Jews and 60 years later, most are part of the Israeli identity. Soon, most of the Jews of the world will live here, for the first time in 1,000 years. This is part of what makes Israel one of the biggest success stories of the twentieth century. But the price was heavy. Many of them took the place of the Palestinians who fled or were banished in 1948, and for most of them it was very hard to become Israelis, whether they survived the Holocaust or came from the Arab lands, whether they arrived from Russia or Ethiopia. One day in 1984, I received an invitation from the Jewish Agency, together with a few other reporters, to see a group of Ethiopian Jews who had arrived that day, still under a thick cover of secrecy. Wearing white robes, they sat on the lawn, clustered within themselves. They seemed shocked. Something in their staring eyes made us ask if they even knew where they were. They knew. We were impressed that they were being treated with warmth and compassion. But the officials of the Interior Ministry who were supposed to take down names and feed them into the ministry’s computer also gave each a Hebrew name. “You will be Yossi,” they said to Jerga, and Lemlem became in a moment Rutti. “You will be Uri and you Rina.” The Jewish Agency representative who was with us offered an explanation: “The difficult Ethiopian names just don’t fit into the computer.” In my eyes, the computer was like the barbers who cut off the peot (sidelocks) of the Yemenite children in the 1950s. The objective was to force upon them a new identity. We were shown the clinic; it all looked fine. On one of the beds lay a baby, a few weeks old. I asked the nurse in charge who he was. “We don’t know,” she answered. “Someone brought him in 10 days ago and hasn’t been back to take him.” I could not believe my eyes. We were in 1984; someone must have taken down the baby’s details, but apparently not. We tried to imagine how his life would turn out. The nurse said that if no-one turned up, he would have to be adopted. He would grow up, go to school, serve in the army, perhaps become an officer, go to university, go into high-tech, get married, have Israeli children. I thought of the hundreds of Yemenite children who died in the 1950s in the immigrants’ camps and were buried without anyone taking the trouble to notify their parents. This was the saddest story of the aliyah. There are few happy emigrations, not even in Israel. Most of the Jews who settled here came as refugees, and many, perhaps most, would have preferred to remain in their countries. Most who came from Poland in the 1920s arrived because they did not manage to enter America, and no-one offered the Holocaust survivors a choice between Israel and the US. Most olim from Arab countries came because wars between Israel and the Arabs left no choice. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews preferred going to America in the 1970s, and most of the Jews in the US have remained there. My parents would also rather have stayed in Germany. The Nazis kicked them out and they found their way to Jerusalem. Here my father was killed in the Independence War. Only lately did I find documents showing that one aunt in New York sent my mother the papers necessary to emigrate to the US after my father died. My mother never told me about it. When I found the papers after her death, I asked myself whether I would have rather grown up in America. I suppose not, and I am grateful for being born in Israel and not having to go through the ordeal of emigration. Seventeen years ago, I met among the thousands of Jews around the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa one cute child who is today as dear to me as a son. Itai is his name. Not long ago, we toured America together and, at one of the Las Vegas casinos, we talked about life. I asked him if he believed there would ever be peace between Israel and the Arabs. “You know that I don’t,” he answered, like most of the Israelis of his age. “If that’s the case,” I said, “maybe you’d better stay here in America?” Itai thought for a moment and said no. It was not easy for him to grow up as an Ethiopian Jew in Israel. Now he feels at home here, he does not want to be an immigrant again.
Last updated: 1:56pm, September 16 2008