Ethiopian Absorption Safed
|Sorkin and Gurevitch Art Gallery|
|Immigration and Absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Tzfat, Israel.|
Beginning in 1984 Israel began to absorb “Beta Yisrael” -- Ethiopian Jews -- on a massive scale. Tzfat has served as a successful center of absorption for the new immigrants since the first waves of Ethiopian Jews began to arrive. Today the immigrants come in smaller groups but new immigrants continue to arrive in Safed almost monthly. They receive a basic package of services, education and assistance which allows them to begin their new lives as Jewish citizens in Israel.
There are several different traditions relating to the origins of the Beta Yisrael. The Beta Yisrael themselves do not have any history to account for their origins but some scholars believe that they are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba while others consider them to be descendants of the tribe of Dan. While they identified themselves as Jews in Ethiopia, their community’s split with the larger Jewish world had occurred before Jews accepted a formal version of the Oral Law. Beta Yisrael therefore had no tradition of rabbinic Judaism or any of the “halachot” -- Jewish laws -- which comprise the Talmud, its commentaries and the centuries of rabbinic decisions that have come since.
 Rabbinic Acceptance
The State of Israel bases its acceptance of Beta Yisrael as part of the Jewish nation on the belief that they are descendants of the Tribe of Dan, and thus, eligible for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return. This was the ruling of the Sepharadi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef who ruled, in 1973, that the Beta Yisrael were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This ruling follows the 1908 ruling of 45 European Chief Rabbis who declared that the Beta Yisrael are Jewish as well as a similar ruling of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook in 1921.
 Life in Ethiopia
The Beta Yisrael seem to have managed well in Ethiopia until the 14th century when they became embroiled in a series of battles with the Christian population. In 1624 they were defeated and their autonomy ended. Throughout the years the Ethiopians persecuted them and attempted to convert them to Christianity. Some Beta Yisrael assimilated willingly, some converted under duress but many retained their heritage and continued to live as Jews until the 20th century.
 Increasing Pressures
In 1973 a Marxist regime took over Ethiopia and life for the members of the Beta Yisrael community became increasingly intolerable. Any type of religious instruction was forbidden, young boys were conscripted into the army and many Jews were killed, imprisoned and forced to move to non-Jewish collective settlements.
 Early Aliyah Efforts and Operation Moses
During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the Israeli government attempted to assist Ethiopian Jews who could make the trek to Sudan. Thousands of Beta Yisrael tried to make the journey and many died along the way. Once in Sudan they were housed in refugee camps and, in secret operations, picked up by Israeli gunboats who brought them to Israel. The largest mass movement, Operation Moses, took place in 1984, bringing over 8000 Beta Yisrael into Israel over the course of six weeks. When the press found out about the mission the Sudanese demanded that the activity stop.
 Tzfat Reception
The first Ethiopian Absorption Centers were established in Tzfat during Operation Moses. Hundreds of apartments were provided to the new Ethiopian immigrants in the southern area of the city, in the Ganai Hadar and Tzahal neighborhoods. The city operated Hebrew ulpan classes for the adults and absorbed the children into the Tzfat school system. Local citizens and non-profits joined together to help on a non-governmental level. At this point, many immigration professionals noted the success of Beta Yisrael immigrants who began their absorption process in Tzfat. They cited the supportive local community and professionals as providing an accepting environment for Ethiopian immigrants.
 Operation Solomon
Conditions in Ethiopia continued to worsen and Beta Yisrael, living in starvation and terror, abandoned their villages and moved to Addis Ababa, near the grounds of the Israeli embassy. In May 1991, as rebels reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the Israelis paid 35 million dollars to the Ethiopian dictator Megitsu for the release of the Jews. On May 25 1991, over the course of 36 hours, Israeli army and El Al planes brought almost 15,000 Ethiopian Beta Yisrael to Israel.
 New Safed Absorption Centers
Upon arrival several thousand new immigrants were brought to Tzfat. They were housed in the existing absorption center on Tzahal Street as well as in two addition locations in the Cana’an neighborhoods which later became permanent absorption centers. Other temporary absorption centers were established in the Mercazi and Yair hotels, two centrally-located hotels which had been standing empty since the 1991 Gulf War.
 Falash Mura
Operation Solomon did not include “Falash Mura” -- descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted, or enticed to convert, to Christianity. Many Jews converted during the famine of 1888 - 1892 because they were denied water, food and land rights if they did not convert. Their descendants claim Jewish ancestry and, following Operation Solomon, asked to be included in aliyah plans.
The government of Israel wavered but based on a ruling of Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef, finally acquiesced and began to bring Falash Mura families in 1992. Members of the Falash Mura must agree, before immigrating to Israel, to study Judaism when they arrive in Israel and undergo a full halachic conversion.
Today almost all of the Ethiopian immigrants who arrive in Tzfat are members of the Falash Mura. They are housed in one of three absorption centers, Tzahal, Meron or Cana’an which are all located within the city. The parents study Hebrew, learn work skills and Judaism in preparation for conversion while the children attend area state religious schools. The schools maintain special classes for the immigrant children for the first two years of study. After the first two years they are integrated into regular classes at their grade level. Kindergarten and nursery school-aged children attend preschool frameworks together with other Israeli children, though the Ethiopian children are not necessarily placed at preschools in the neighborhood of the absorption center. The Education Department of Safed does this so as to prevent kindergartens from filling up with mainly Ethiopian children, facilitate integration and encourage Hebrew language acquisition.
 Advantages of Safed
Absorption officials, government workers and Ethiopian activists encourage the use of the Tzfat absorption centers whenever possible. The community warmly accepts the immigrants and integration into Israeli society runs smoothly. The schools and health care system employ staff who have extensive experience in working with the new immigrants. Veteran Ethiopian immigrants in the community assist the new arrivals. There is an active Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed which provides assistance for the new immigrants with translations, transactions and other bureaucratic needs. Charity organizations also offer limited assistance to the new families and the religious institutions, including the synagogues, rabbinute and rabbinical court of Safed welcome and support the new arrivals.
 Moving On
Many Ethiopian immigrants express an interest in staying in Tzfat after their initial absorption period is completed, but because of a lack of employment opportunities in the city, they are encouraged to find housing and jobs in the center of the country. Some families do remain in Tzfat and find jobs. They receive government-sponsored mortgages in order to buy apartments anywhere in the city.
There is a large percentage of Ethiopian students at the local Safed College and College-Preparatory program. There are special scholarships through the college for Ethiopian students and many young people take advantage of these opportunities following their army services.
The nursing program at the Tzfat Rivka Ziv hospital offers scholarships to Ethiopian students who wish to study for a four-year nursing degree.