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30 years after Operation Solomon, Israel’s Keren Aynor helps build careers for Ethiopian Jews

Courtesy of Keren Hanan Aynor
Courtesy of Keren Hanan Aynor

Prominent broadcast journalist Tsega Melaku—the first woman and the first Ethiopian ever to direct the Israeli radio station Reshet Aleph—is a household name among Jews of Ethiopian descent. But to many others, even professors at Bar-Ilan University where she studied political science, Melaku is just another African refugee fit only for menial labor.

“Years ago when I went to the supermarket, people would come up to me and ask if I wanted to clean their apartment,” she said. “They assume that because I’m black, I must be a housecleaner or a babysitter.”

The last time that happened, Melaku gave the offending shopper a copy of her 2014 book, “Not In Our School”—a look at the persistent racism she faced when attempting to provide a quality education for her children.

Melaku, 52, is from the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. She came to Israel alone, at the age of 16, in 1984. She got a master’s degree in business from Jerusalem’s Touro College thanks to financial assistance from Keren Hanan Aynor (KHA), a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to Ethiopian Israelis attending universities, graduate schools and technical colleges.

“I was supported by KHA,” she said. “Even though I was working, I was already a mother of two and it wasn’t easy. Without this support, I don’t believe I would have continued my studies.”

Tsega Melaku

Today, Melaku is KHA’s chairwoman, a post she’s held since 2012. Named in memory of Hanan Aynor—Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia from 1971 to 1973—the fund has awarded more than 4,400 scholarships to some 2,250 students since its founding in 1994. Grants average $1,000 each, paid in three installments during the school year.

The fund specifically helps master’s and PhD candidates, as well as undergraduates with children who hope to earn advanced degrees and students who cannot qualify for other assistance.

“In my eyes, the Ethiopian Jews are the real Zionists of our time,” said KHA board member Micha Feldman. “No emissary was sent, like with the US, Russia or Ukraine. No one encouraged them to get to Jerusalem. It’s part of their DNA which they got from their ancestors. They took upon themselves the dangers and walked to Sudan. They suffered in Sudan and buried their dead in Sudan. No one told them to do so, and no one assisted them.”

Long-term absorption a looming challenge

Feldman, 77, knows the story of Ethiopian Jewry intimately. A fluent Amharic speaker, the former chief of the Jewish Agency mission to Ethiopia helped plan “Operation Solomon”—a massive covert operation that successfully evacuated 14,310 Jews from Addis Ababa on May 24-25, 1991, as the country teetered on the verge of civil war.

Feldman’s objective was to help Ethiopia’s remaining Jews make aliyah and be reunited with their relatives, 17,500 of whom had fled to Israel in the 1980s via Sudan.

But 30 years later, even with the immigrants resettled in the Jewish homeland, the struggle isn’t over.

“Most Israelis say it’s good that the Ethiopian Jews have joined us, but many are still racist in their thinking and attitudes,” said Feldman, who retired from the Jewish Agency in 1993. “From the point of view of the Ethiopian olim, saying it’s good you’re here is not enough. They expected to be embraced by Israeli society. The Ethiopians need it because they are so different, and we don’t do enough to make them feel welcome.”

An Israeli plane lands in Sudan to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991’s Operation Solomon. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The board of directors of KHA is composed of Ethiopian Israeli volunteers who were recipients of the KHA scholarships, former ambassadors and activists. Board member Haim Confino, an ex-Israeli Embassy official in Addis who also helped pull off the dangerous mission, agrees.

“Operation Solomon was the easy part,” he said. “The difficult part is the absorption. This is why the government is involved, and why many NGOs are also taking part in this endeavor.”

MK Avraham Neguise addressing a special session of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee marking 25 years since Operation Solomon, March 6, 2017. (Courtesy)

One of those NGOs is Keren Hanan Aynor, which board member Confino calls a “very efficient, successful foundation.” Among other things, the organization has partnered with IDC Herzliya to teach promising Ethiopians how to become software engineers. Keren Hanan Ayor has several partnerships including Achva College, Hadassah College and WECODE. Four scholarship recipients are in WECODE this year.

Generally, 1,000 people apply for this one-year program, yet only 30 are accepted. Those who finish the course do six-month apprenticeships for selected Israeli companies that later commit to employ them full-time.

“To compete, these Ethiopians need higher education,” said Confino, noting that KHA partially finances their studies at IDC Herzliya. “But sometimes it’s not easy to get a job, even if you have higher education. So we help them break the glass ceiling.”

Confino: With more money, ‘we could do so much more’

KHA, staffed entirely by volunteers, operates on an annual budget of just NIS 1,200,000, said Melaku. Last year, it received around 1000 applications for assistance, of which 418 were approved.

The charity, headquartered in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, supports 7% of the 3,291 students of Ethiopian descent enrolled in 90 areas of study at Israeli universities and colleges.

New immigrants from Ethiopia shortly after disembarking from the plane as part of Operation Solomon, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo). All photos from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 2016, according to the organization, 3,194 Ethiopian Jews were enrolled at Israeli institutions of higher learning (up from 747 in 2001). Of that total, 88% were pursuing bachelor’s degrees, 11% master’s degrees and 1% PhDs. In addition, 96% of KHA grantees are currently employed, 95% have completed the academic year, 72% are women, and 60% were born in Ethiopia.

While serving in the Israeli army is seen as a great equalizer, Feldman said that “if we want to help Ethiopian Jews who’ve made aliyah become part of Israeli society and fulfill their potential, we must let them study and acquire a profession. That not only gives them a decent income, but also brings them together with Israelis who were born here or came here from other countries.”

KHA is a well known organization within the Ethiopian community. Of its awardees, 96% complete their degree, a number much higher than the national completion rate.

With annual tuition at private colleges averaging NIS 11,000, many students of Ethiopian origin—even those born in Israel—simply can’t make it financially. That’s where KHA comes in. The median age for Ethiopian Israelis pursuing their first degree is 26.5, compared to 25.5 for the general population. Yet KHA has rejected over 60% of eligible students due to lack of funds.

“Looking back over the last 30 years, I think there’s a lot to be proud of,” said Confino, today a business consultant in the tech industry. “But I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties. The job is not yet done. If we had more money, we could do so much more.”

Added Melaku: “Jews from North Africa came here in the 1950s, and we’re still hearing about their integration. We are also Jews, and we came to Israel because we wanted to return to our homeland. Israel is not only for white Jews. We returned by choice. And I hope that 50 or 60 years from now, we won’t still be talking about discrimination and racism.”

KHA doesn’t receive any funding from the government. Many of its students would otherwise fall through the cracks due to a lack of funding. As such KHA is asking you to be a partner in the future of so many, a partner in education and a partner in Israel.

To learn more click here.

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