Land of milk, honey a lost dream for Ethiopian Jews

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JERUSALEM — Nitzana Partza came to Israel from Ethiopia 10 years ago as part of Operation Solomon, the dramatic 36-hour airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa.

She was 11 at the time and immigrated alone, without any other members of her family.

"We dreamed about Israel," Partza, who is now a 21-year-old officer in the Israel Defense Force, said during a television interview this week. "My mother was against it, but I saw it as my Zionist responsibility."

Partza's khaki green army uniform, with a green beret tucked under her shoulder epaulets, contrasts sharply with her delicate facial features and soft voice.

But her extraordinary experiences at a young age helped shape her as a young woman with a clear vision of her future plans.

Partza lived in a state-run boarding school when she first came to Israel. Four years later, after a visit to her family in Ethiopia, she decided to find a way for her mother to immigrate.

After knocking on dozens of doors at Israel's Interior Ministry, she wrote a letter to then-President Ezer Weizman asking for help.

Two months later, her mother arrived in Israel — but it wasn't a successful immigration.

"My mother was too independent and didn't know how to deal with all the aspects of being absorbed into Israeli society," said Partza, whose mother owns a café back home.

Ethiopian emigres "have to show that we want to be absorbed and assimilated, but we also have to be accepted for who we are," she said.

The May 1991 airlift saved Ethiopian Jews from the risk of malnutrition and massacre during a civil war that caused famine and endless hardship.

It also delivered thousands of Jews from rural farming villages to the fairly sophisticated, secular society of 1990s Israel.

Expecting the biblical land of milk and honey and the world of the First and Second Temples, the immigrants instead got a nation already busy absorbing tens of thousands of Russian emigres — and dealing with religious divisiveness and political strife.

As a result, the absorption and assimilation of Ethiopian Jews hasn't been easy.

"The airlift was very dramatic for the Jewish world, and there was no question that these Jews should come to Israel," said Shlomo Mula, an Ethiopian and a Jewish Agency official who deals with Ethiopian absorption.

"We all grew up with the ideal of Israel as the land of milk and honey, but it's a dream, it's idealistic. The reality is, the absorption process is very difficult."

Of the 80,000 Ethiopians in Israel, only a small percentage have fully integrated into society, local experts say.

Some 5,000 have graduated college, and another 2,000 are currently in university or college. Another 10 percent of Ethiopian teenagers are taking exams used for placement in the army and university admissions.

According to the Jewish Agency, however, some 20,000 Ethiopian teenagers between the ages of 13 and 20 have dropped out of school without plans to join the army or go to university.

These adolescents and young adults, many of whom didn't succeed in school because of cultural differences, are known as the "lost generation."

"It's an unsolved problem," said Molla Mengisu, an Operation Solomon immigrant who works with the Ethiopian community in Tel Aviv. "They couldn't keep up in school, and this generation has to be sacrificed for the sake of the next generation."

The key to a successful Ethiopian absorption is education, Mengisu said.

When Mengisu immigrated with his wife and two children, the Addis Ababa native already had a university degree. After Mengisu arrived in Israel, the Jewish Agency brought him to the United States five times to describe the Ethiopian experience.

"My 16-year-old cousin came here a few months ago, without any education," he said. "She can't go into the tenth grade because she has no idea what's going on. But she can't sit in a first-grade class either."

Most Ethiopians came from rural areas where they were able to read and write simple Amharic, the native Ethiopian language, but even those skills were limited.

Now there are 20,000 young people — 10,000 in Tel Aviv alone — who don't work, don't learn and don't want to be Ethiopian or Israeli.

They want to be Jamaican, Mengisu quipped, referring to a trend in recent years for disaffected Ethiopian youth to identify with the oppositional politics and African pride motifs of Jamaica's Rastafarian culture.

It's easy to spot these teenagers, dressed in low-slung baggy jeans and T-shirts, congregating on street corners and outside clubs blasting reggae music.

These kind of societal issues are a major reversal for Ethiopians, who come from a culture where innocence, respect for one's elders and dominance of the father figure were the norm.

Another continuing dilemma is the occasional struggle with the Israeli rabbinate over the community's Jewish status. As their Jewish identity sometimes has been questioned, the kesses, or Ethiopian rabbis, have lost power in the community.

There are yet other problems confronting the Ethiopian community, including an alarming 40 percent divorce rate among middle-aged Ethiopian couples. In the 10 years since Operation Solomon, around 80 Ethiopian immigrants have committed suicide.

"It's not enough to rescue people dramatically," said Mula, who arrived in Israel at 17 via Operation Moses, a 1984-1985 mission that brought 7,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.