Ethiopian Jews in Israel Urged to Retain Their Cultural Heritage

Although it has been 15 years since Esther Wube Hollander boarded the plane that brought her to Israel, the status of Jews in her native homeland of Ethiopia and the future role of Ethiopian Jews in Israel continues to preoccupy her thoughts.

“I hope the Ethiopian Jews in Israel will learn Hebrew, Israeli culture,” she said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But at the same time she expressed a fierce concern that Ethiopian Jews “maintain the culture of Ethiopia. This is important.”

Hollander, here on a 17-day speaking tour sponsored by the American Association of Ethiopian Jewry, is scheduled to attend this week’s General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Washington.

Hollander, who has devoted considerable time as a volunteer at various Ethiopian absorption centers in Israel, said the dramatic cultural changes faced by recently arrived immigrants have been difficult for many Ethiopions, especially the elderly. And, she said, the recent battle between the Ethiopians and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has only exacerbated the situation.

AIRLIFT IS TOO LATE FOR SISTER, MOTHER

But Hollander said the dramatic rescue of Ethiopian Jews — airlifted last winter from the Sudan — was too late for her mother and sister, who died several years ago from what she described as negligenl medical treatment. Her father, however, now lives in Israel as do her eight brothers and sisters.

The 34-year-old Hollander was born in the Ethiopion village of Wenige in Gondar province. She is a small, slight woman, a mother of two children, married to a Polish Jew living in Herzliya. An ardent Zionist, she had no misgivings about leaving Ethiopia in 1971 to make aliya.

Growing up in her village in Gondar province was very difficult, Hollander recalled. She said she was the only Jewish student in her class and that there were some anti-Jewish sentiments from other students toward her.” It was very hard,” she said.” I’m a Jew and I’m not afraid to be a Jew.”

FIRST VISIT TO AFRICA IN 15 YEARS

She has not returned to Ethiopia. But last summer Hollander had her first opportunity to return to Africa after 15 years. She was the only Ethiopian Jew in the Israeli delegation to the Women’s Conference Forum at the Nairobi End-of-the-Decade Women’s Conference.

Her views on the conference and her return to Africa after so many years are mixed. She was able to speak with women from other parts of the world attending the United Nations-sponsored gathering but she also encountered the hostility that is usually reserved for the Israelis.

She recalled an incident at a workshop on the situation of refugee women and children organized by Palestinian women. At that workshop, the chairperson would not allow the Israeli women to speak. Finally, the representative from Iraq spoke and accused Israel and other states of responsibility for the Iran-Iraq war.

At this point, Hollander recalled, she stood up and shouted “You are a liar. You are killing your brothers.” While other members of the workshop began to shout her down, Hollander recalled that her action was warmly praised by Israeli and other Jewish delegates to the conference. “It is what I had to do,” she said.

At the same time, she said the women’s conference was a wonderful experience where she was able to have warm exchanges on Judaism, feminism and other topics with a wide range of people, including the women representing Kenya. She said many African women were interested to hear her views of Israeli society and the role of women there. Referring to the many women who attended the conference, Hollander said, ” We want them to know us, to understand us and to help us politically.”

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