For Veteran Israelis: Excitement; for Immigrants: Joy and Confusion

One of this weekend’s most moving pictures was a photograph of an Israel Defense Force corporal carrying a baby new immigrant in his arms. Both are black, both Ethiopians.

The soldier, a former immigrant, now a veteran Israeli, is all smiles as he takes part in the holy mission of absorption.

But the baby seems to be on the verge of tears, as if asking, “Now what?”

In the lobby of the Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem, one of the temporary absorption centers housing the new Ethiopian immigrants, expressions on the faces of veteran Israelis dramatically contrasted with those on the faces of the new immigrants.

The veterans seemed more excited than the new Israelis, and kept telling each other how exciting it was to watch history in the making.

They poured into the five-star hotel carrying plastic bags loaded with used clothing and toys for the children. Some carried trays of food.

By noon on Sunday, Jewish Agency officials at the hotel had to ask Israel Radio to tell the Israelis to stop bringing gifts. There was simply no more room in the building to store all of the clothes.

Most of the adult immigrants at the Diplomat were silent. Not only because few can speak Hebrew, but also because by nature, Ethiopian Jews are soft-spoken and reserved.

Perhaps they were troubled by thoughts of the difficulties that lay ahead: reuniting families, finding housing and employment, and bridging the vast cultural gap.

But their jubilant, smiling children went from one visitor to another, shaking their hands.

Just a few knew enough Hebrew to hold a conversation. Those children who had been stuck in Addis Ababa waiting to leave for Israel had picked up their language skills at a school run by the Jewish Agency for Israel on the grounds of the Israeli Embassy.

The school had been the largest Jewish school in the world, said Jewish Agency Chairman Simcha Dinitz, who proudly added, “It is now closed forever.”

“At long last, the Jews of Ethiopia are in Israel with their families,” said Dinitz after the last of the planes used for Operation Solomon had landed. “Another chapter in the history of Diaspora Jewry is closed.”

But for those who were reunited with relatives they had not seen in too many years, the next chapter was just beginning.

Moshe Shete silently faced two of his sisters, whom he had not seen for the past eight years. The girls, exhausted and shocked by the dramatic trip, just sat crying and staring at their brother, unable to talk.

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