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Op-Ed: Toward creating an Ethiopian Israeli Peace Corps

Ethiopian Israeli teacher Dror Negussi is surrounded by Rwandan orphans at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. (JDC)

Ethiopian Israeli teacher Dror Negussi is surrounded by Rwandan orphans at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. (JDC)

OXFORD, Miss. (JTA) — In Africa and Israel, several exciting programs are now operating that show that untapped resources in Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community could be turned into one of Israel’s great assets.

As an activist on behalf of Israel and Ethiopian Jews since 1974, I propose that Israel build a sizable cadre of Ethiopian Jewish Israelis and train them for Peace Corps-type service in poverty-stricken African nations to help them develop schools, farms, irrigation systems, and paramedical and communication facilities.

This model of an Afro-Israeli Peace Corps can be useful for other democracies that also are trying to assimilate large numbers of African immigrants.

Out of Africa and educated in Israel, these Ethiopian Israelis could be employed by Israel or by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to help others in Africa.

This is already happening at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a JDC site on 143 acres on the outskirts of the capital Kigali. Some 250 Rwandan orphans are enrolled as live-in students at Agahozo Shalom, which has plans to add 250 more orphans from the devastating wars of recent years. Some of those training local Rwandans to work with the orphans are Ethiopian Israeli graduates of the Yemin Orde youth village in Israel.

Why should an Afro-Israeli Peace Corps consist primarily of Ethiopian Israelis?  Experiences at the Rwanda school and at similar aid programs in Africa show that African people relate especially well to others of African background whose families have shared similar trials.

This would hardly be the first foray for Israel into conducting Peace Corps-type work in Africa. Between 1958 and 1973, the Israeli government sent physicians, engineers, and irrigation and agricultural experts to a number of African countries. Today, Israel has resumed helping some African countries.

With a broadly based effort to recruit and train Ethiopian Jews for service across the African continent, Israel can restore its pre-1973 programs in Africa with a new creative humanitarian dimension. At the same time, significant benefits would be provided to Israel’s growing Ethiopian Jewish community, too many of whom are unemployed and whose families live below the national poverty level.

As we know from the U.S. Peace Corps program, returning volunteers employ their skills and experiences beneficially at home. A long list of American leaders in the fields of education, business, politics, diplomacy, the arts, literature and medicine started their careers with service in the U.S. Peace Corps.

Once they return to Israel, Ethiopian graduates of the program would be more likely to get better jobs, decreasing the community’s poverty level and perhaps increasing the respect of other Israelis for their fellow Ethiopian citizens. The program also could generate much good will internationally for Israel.

Any naysayers who might claim that an insufficient number of Ethiopian Israelis are up to the task would be wrong. Ethiopian Jews in Israel have become rabbis, lawyers, musicians, fashion models, nurses, movie producers, journalists and computer programmers. An educational program in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi has helped Ethiopian Israelis there achieve higher rates of high school graduation than the general Israeli population in that community. There should be no concern about Israel finding sufficient qualified Ethiopian Jews to staff an Afro-Israeli peace corps.

Furthermore, recruiting Ethiopian Jews for service in Africa can be a potent motivating factor in further improving educational achievement in their own community in Israel.

An Afro-Israeli Peace Corps obviously will be no panacea to solve all the problems of the Ethiopian Israelis; other major efforts are needed. Without a broad-based effort to address the problems of that community, the heroic airlifts of the Ethiopian Jews via Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 may continue to be marred by social ills.

But a Peace Corps-type program could help provide a way for Ethiopian Israelis to gain valuable training and work experience, and elevate their socioeconomic status within Israel. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, past president of the Jewish Life Network, and Nathan Shapiro, past president of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, have endorsed this idea.

Just as the Peace Corps was a major win-win domestically and internationally for America, this initiative could bring similar benefits to Israel and to any country wishing to join the fight against world poverty.

(Howard Lenhoff was president of American Association for Ethiopian Jews from 1978 to 1982 and is the author of “Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes.”)

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