Change Region:New Zealand

Dreaming Towards a New Horizon

The Basics on Ethiopian Jews

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Posted on: 
11 Sep 2019
Dreaming Towards a New Horizon

Welcomed with a hug and a kiss, I felt instantly at home with Sigal Kanotopsky, a petite yet powerful woman with enough dreams to fill the horizon.

Sitting comfortably with a cup of tea, Sigal recalled her arrival in Israel from Ethiopia at age five. Since then she has completed an academic education, married, become a mother, and is now an imaginative leader helping other immigrants advance in Israeli society. In rapid Hebrew requiring my full attention, Sigal passionately described the frustration and vision shared by so many of her peers. If I had to sum it up, the bottom line is education, mentoring and mediation.

For Ethiopian immigrants, education and employment are a significant measure towards making them feel equal with other Israelis. Roni Akale, a colleague operating educational programs for Ethiopian youth, agreed, pointing out that successful integration means “learning professions that position you for a better job and salary. The more you prepare and move into an important position, then the gaps begin to close.”

Since most Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel with little education amid enormous cultural upheaval, it will take time to catch up. Even second-generation Ethiopian-Israeli children enter school with huge gaps and cannot rely on educated parents to help. Support and mentors are necessary to help them dream and encourage them to believe success is possible and personally attainable.

Naturally, after investing efforts to learn a profession, one hopes to find suitable employment. Yet, for Ethiopian olim (newcomers), unexpected barriers often arise. Intense competition for a good job is difficult for immigrants who are less connected. In addition, it is easy to overlook how cultural misconceptions unexpectedly impede acceptance as well.

Ethiopian Israeli educator Takele Mekonen, when asked how cultural misunderstandings can impact opportunities, explained:

“In Ethiopia, the cultural code of honour was the most essential. They taught us not to make eye contact, to hide or restrain our feelings... to measure our words and to speak little. However, in Israel it is completely the opposite. ... You must enter with confidence and make eye contact. Here, you must speak a lot. The first words you tell about yourself must be right and authentic. ...If not, most interviews will end with this. ...If a person doesn’t believe in his own ability... he won’t pass the interview.”

Hearing this, I understood why educational workshops are so critical for these newcomers.

Later, while visiting an ICEJ-sponsored employment seminar, Ethiopian-Israeli Ezra Warku, pushed home the point. A recent law graduate who dreams of working in a private or public sector law firm, Warku described his struggle when in an Israeli courtroom, noting, “It is instinctive to look down and not meet the eye of the judge as a sign of honour and respect. ...However, this is seen in Israeli culture as weakness.”

With lightning clarity, I visualized the disastrous consequences of appearing weak as an attorney in Israel and agreed that - if not overcome - this would be a serious handicap.

ICEJ Aid seeks to mitigate these and other challenges by investing in a variety of educational enrichment programs for Ethiopian Jews.

Two years ago, Samaon (27 years old) and his sister Liquitu (24 years old) made aliyah with their wheelchair bound father on an ICEJ-sponsored flight. Due to the generosity of our Christian friends, both Samaon and Liquitu are currently working to complete an intensive pre-academic program to qualify for nursing studies. I met them in Beersheva, the city they now call home, and was able to gift them with a new computer to help with their studies.

Amazed by the help received, Samaon said with quiet conviction, “I want to say thank you. If you wouldn’t have helped us, our economic situation would be very difficult. I feel really good in this program. Every day I am meeting new people.” He further emphasized the importance of his mentors, saying: “When I came into this program, I started to feel hope. ...They advised me... and helped make my way clear.”

When asked about the big dream for her community, Sigal responded, “that we would be equals. That the judgment of Ethiopian-Israelis would be the same as for all other Israelis.” In other words, when Israelis look at Ethiopians, there would no longer be the immediate assumption they are uneducated, needy or incapable.

Considering all these voices, I thought to myself: “We can do this! We can ease their way by helping them lay a good foundation for their future.”

Over the years, ICEJ Aid has assisted new immigrants in Israel through crucial stepping stones on the path to successful integration by providing support for children’s educational enrichment programs, vocational training, support for single mothers, employment and other workshops, mentoring programs, youth programs and stipends for university students.

Today there is a fresh urgency to address Ethiopian integration needs so the next generation will have a solid foundation, and not be disenfranchised or relegated to the periphery of society.

Helping our Ethiopian friends make aliyah is just the beginning of their journey to return to their rightful place among the Jewish people. Continued assistance in the years following their arrival is a vital need – until their new homeland truly becomes home.


The Basics on Ethiopian Jews

The exact origin of the Ethiopian Jewish community remains unresolved. But there has likely been Ethiopian Jewish blood since the time of the Exodus, when Moses married an Ethiopian woman (see Numbers 12:1).

Today, there are approximately 148,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel (1.75 % of total population).

Roughly two-thirds immigrated from Ethiopia while one-third were born in Israel.

In 1977, Israeli authorities approved their right to re-join the Jewish people in Israel.

Operation Moses (1984-1985) brought 6,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The new movie “Red Sea Diving Resort” (Netflix, 2019) recounts this covert Mossad operation to rescue them from refugee camps in Sudan.

Operation Solomon brought home another 14,300 in a three-day, emergency airlift in May 1991, which took place amid a civil war in Ethiopia.

Some 9,000 Ethiopians were left stranded in transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa over questions they had converted to Christianity.

In 2015, the Israeli cabinet approved the return of these last 9,000 Falash Mura in order to reunite separated families.

Around 7,000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish descent remain in transit camps in Ethiopia, awaiting further government approval for them to come home to Israel.


Ethiopian Jews in Israel need our help now!
The problems of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants adjusting to life in modern Israel came to the fore once again this summer when many took to the streets in protest of their sense of alienation. Yet the ICEJ is uniquely positioned to help, as our AID director, Nicole Yoder, just completed a Master’s study on how best to assist the Ethiopian newcomers to fit in better. The main focus of our efforts going forward will be to provide them with better education and job training opportunities, from childhood through adulthood. These are the keys to unlocking the full potential of Ethiopians in Israel.

Help us make the future brighter for Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

And for more information on the unique history and challenges of Ethiopian Jewish aliyah and integration, watch the ICEJ’s powerful documentary film “Journey of Dreams” on YouTube at:


Share this: