Ethiopian-Israelis tout ‘sacrifice’ in Gaza warSat, 09 Mar 2024 15:18:08 GMT

After Yegebal Ayalew immigrated with her son from Ethiopia to Israel in 2012, she watched him thrive in their new home only to lose him in Hamas’s October 7 attack.Now, as she mourns the slain 21-year-old soldier she tearfully described as “respectful to all”, she has just one wish for Israeli authorities: that they facilitate the relocation of relatives left behind in Ethiopia so her family can be together again.Israel’s war against Hamas militants in Gaza, now in its sixth month, has underscored the mixed fortunes of the country’s estimated 170,000 residents of Ethiopian descent.Fallen soldiers are honoured for defending their country, a sign of successful efforts to integrate them into Israeli culture and institutions.At the same time, many Ethiopian-Israelis remain on the short end of income and education gaps while pining for loved ones still in the highlands of Ethiopia’s Amhara region.Often those divisions can be seen among different generations under the same roof, as evidenced by Yegebal and her dead son, Maru Alem, whose military service always filled her with dread.”He used to say to me, ‘Mom, what’s the problem? I’m going to work for my country. If we don’t protect Israel, Israel won’t be protected,'” a tearful Yegebal, dressed in black and clutching a tissue, told AFP. The only thing that might console her, she said, was a reunion in Israel with her Ethiopia-based siblings and other relatives.”I call upon the Israeli authorities to bring them here with God’s help,” she said.”It will be good if the Israeli authorities help me with this… My son has given his life to this country.”- Generation gap – The bulk of Ethiopia’s Jewish community, known as “Beta Israel”, moved to Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s via covert airlifts during a grim stretch of famine and war in the Horn of Africa nation.Those left behind are often referred to as “Falash Mura”, a derogatory term meaning “wanderers” that highlights their status as descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity — many under duress — in the 18th and 19th centuries. They identify as Jewish today but are not recognised by rabbinical authorities and do not immigrate under the Law of Return guaranteeing Israeli citizenship for all Jews.Instead their flights are organised under family reunification rules, and all claimants need to have a parent in Israel already.Thousands of “Falash Mura” are languishing on waiting lists in Ethiopia, hoping Israeli authorities will green-light their immigration so they can start what they hope will be new, more prosperous lives.Yegebal and Maru are both considered “Falash Mura”, but Maru, arriving when he was just nine years old, had an easier time than his mother learning Hebrew and making Israeli friends.It’s a common dynamic in Ethiopian-Israeli households, said Dr Liat Yakhnich of Israel’s Beit Berl College, who researches immigrant families and immigrant youth at risk.”I meet a lot of young people who grew up in families where they perceived the parents as weak,” she said.”I think they appreciate very much the endurance, how their parents survived the immigration. But at the same time, they have had to deal with life in Israel on their own,” without much parental support.Ethiopian-Israeli activists say the challenges they face include discrimination at the hands of police, which spurred violent protests in 2019.Yet Yakhnich said that, on the whole, integration efforts have seen progress.”They are Jews and they are Israelis and they feel that they belong to this society,” she said.”They can be hurt by this society, but they feel like they belong here.”- ‘Unity’ – Gil Elias, an Ethiopian-Israeli activist in Ashkelon, said he hoped the war would help mitigate tensions between the community and the broader Israeli society.”We see the sacrifice in the numbers,” he said, noting that 24 of the more than 500 Israel security forces killed either on October 7 or in military operations since then had Ethiopian backgrounds.”Ethiopians are 1.7 percent of the Israeli population and around 5 percent of the dead soldiers,” he said.”Since October 7, we think more of unity. We can care for one another and not fight our old wars.”The Israeli military does not maintain statistics on troops’ ethnicities.But there is no doubt the military “is a very powerful social mechanism of belonging,” Yakhnich said, a phenomenon displayed clearly one recent afternoon by Savht Farda, the father of a soldier wounded on October 7.As he walked through a market frequented by Ethiopian-Israelis, he showed off a picture of his son in a hospital gown meeting Benny Gantz, a former defence minister and member of Israel’s war cabinet.”We love our country, Israel,” Savht told AFP.”We would rather die than see our country die.”