Ethiopian activists, JAFI clash over Passover Seders

Ethiopian immigrants throughout the country have been left without invitations to communal Passover Seders, community activists complained to the media on Wednesday, while a spokesman for the Jewish Agency said that arrangements were in place for all the Ethiopian olim residing in the organization’s absorption centers.

“We heard that there will not be a Passover Seder for olim in the absorption centers just yesterday, only three days before Passover,” Hana Elazar Legesse, spokeswoman for the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, told The Jerusalem Post.

“We immediately inquired with the Absorption Ministry, who responded that this was the responsibility of the Jewish Agency. We repeatedly tried to contact them for answers, but did not receive any response,” she explained.

A ministry spokesman likewise referred the Post to the agency.

According to Elazar Legesse, the association received a response from the agency only following media coverage of the matter, when the agency said it would like the olim to become more independent and learn to hold the Seder on their own. As such, she said, the olim were granted vouchers totaling some NIS 150 to NIS 300 for the holiday and were given tutorials on how to host a Seder.

“In Kiryat Gat and Ayelet Hashahar in the North, the olim were able to organize a last-minute Seder in the absorption centers. But there are olim all over the country, some without any family, and unfortunately it seems that they will simply not hold a Seder this year,” she explained.

Asked about the reports and Elazar Legesse’s statement, agency spokesman Avi Mayer said that “Ethiopian immigrants residing in Jewish Agency absorption centers were informed more than three weeks ago that there would not be communal Passover seders for veteran immigrants, in accordance with the organization’s established practice.

“In the interim, he added, “absorption center staff members have been working with each family to ensure that they are able to fully celebrate the holiday, either with their extended families residing outside of the absorption center— as in the vast majority of cases—or in their own family settings on-site. Families that choose to hold their own seders within their absorption centers have received the full support and accompaniment of Jewish Agency staff. We would never permit a situation in which families were left without seder plans mere days before the holiday.”

Mayer added that “something that was never scheduled to take place cannot be canceled.

Nothing that would otherwise have taken place has been canceled.

We do not generally hold communal Seders for veteran immigrants from Ethiopia or from any other country.”

While it has long been his organization’s practice to hold communal Seders for recently arrived Ethiopian immigrants in the absorption centers, once they are in Israel for more than a year “and develop greater independence, we encourage them to hold their own Seders or to join their families for the holiday,” he explained.

Elazar Legesse was skeptical of such explanations, however, telling the Post that “if they want the olim to be independent, they need to help them leave the absorption centers and not just tell them to hold a Seder by themselves at the last minute – this is a ridiculous response.”

She said that the Ethiopian immigrants believe that the cancellation of the Seders by the agency was intended as a response to protests held last week in Kiryat Gat over their living conditions in the absorption centers, and that this incident is indicative of a much deeper problem facing Ethiopian olim in absorption centers.

Ethiopian immigrants comprise some 80 percent of olim living in absorption centers in Israel, explained Elazar Legesse.

“They are living in horrendous conditions – the physical structures are very old and unsanitary, not to mention overcrowded. In one small room you can find a full family with children, or a couple who have to share a room with a single young man,” she said.

According to Elazar Legesse, these horrible living conditions are maintained in an effort to motivate the Ethiopian immigrants to leave the absorption centers.

The centers are meant to assist the immigrants for a period of up to two years, after which they are granted a housing grant and encouraged to leave and build a new life in Israel.

The problem, however, is that many immigrants are simply unable to do so and remain in the absorption centers for years.

“There are elderly immigrants or single young men without families that come to Israel.

They can’t leave after two years, they can’t afford to buy an apartment, they are simply stuck in these absorption centers – some already for 10 years,” she explained.

“The notion that a policy in place for years was meant to penalize immigrants for their actions last week is logically deficient,” Mayer countered, saying that the agency “will gladly assist immigrants unable to hold their own Passover Seders for any reason.”

“The State of Israel has accommodated recently arrived immigrants in absorption centers throughout its existence. This temporary housing solution has worked for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world, and it continues to be instrumental to many immigrants’ absorption today. That some immigrants may encounter challenges integrating into Israeli society after their housing eligibility expires is a matter to be addressed on a societal level, not by feeding immigrants and journalists false information and leveling baseless accusations at the organization doing more than any other to successfully absorb immigrants into their new homeland.”

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