ASHKELON, Israel — When he arrived in Israel 20 years ago, Isaac Elias recalls, people looked at his black face and were sure that he didn't belong. At one point, he was given 24 hours to leave the country.
"I came to Israel, I said 'I'm an Ethiopian Jew,' " and they said, 'We don't believe you; there is no such thing,' " Elias recalled in an interview at the Shimshon immigrant-absorption center here.
It took a while, but Elias ignored the pressure and eventually decided that he would remain in Israel. He decided to become an Israeli citizen, and now he works here as a counselor and translator--helping smooth the way for the thousands of Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas, who have arrived in Israel in the last few weeks. They came here in a once-secret airlift called "Operation Moses" that rescued them from drought and famine in Ethiopia.
Better for Newer Arrivals "There wasn't a reception process like there is today," Elias said. It will be better for the newcomers, he added, but not altogether trouble-free, despite what has become probably the most highly developed system anywhere of absorbing immigrants.
"There are always problems," Elias said. "There were problems then; now there are different problems."
About 7,500 of the Ethiopians have been airlifted to Israel between early November and early January--when, according to diplomats, premature publicity embarrassed the previously cooperative Sudanese government and halted the Israeli-sponsored operation before the last of the Ethiopian Jews could be brought out of refugee camps in Sudan.
Comparatively Small Influx The newcomers joined an equal number already here, most of whom had arrived since 1980 by means still shrouded in official secrecy. The numbers are small compared to past immigrations. About 750,000 Jews flooded into Israel in the four years after independence in 1948, more than doubling the young nation's population.
Nevertheless, in some ways, the arrival of the Ethiopians is regarded as Israel's biggest immigration challenge to date.
The vast majority of the new black immigrants are emerging from backward agrarian lives into a modern society. Some Israelis still do not fully accept them as Jews. And their arrival has, for the first time, focused national attention on the color issue.
"It is incumbent on us all to meet this thrilling challenge of befriending, of absorbing, the brothers and sisters who have come from afar," Prime Minister Shimon Peres said last week in a report to the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, on the Ethiopian immigration.
"We must do this with full respect for their customs and way of life, for the uniqueness of their heritage and the depth of their feelings. We are one people. There are no black Jews and white Jews. There are Jews. History and faith bind us together forever."
Behind the prime minister's remarks was the painful memory of past mistakes, when high-handed treatment by the Ashkenazim, the European Jews, of immigrating Sephardic Jews from Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa left social and political scars that are still visible. Peres and other Israeli leaders say they are determined that those mistakes not be repeated with the Ethiopians.
'This whole kind of Tarzan syndrome, as if they're coming from darkest Africa, simply is not true' (The Ethiopian Jews regard the term Falashas, by which they are often called, as pejorative. It means "strangers" in their native Amharic language, and, in their view, it emphasizes their second-class status in Ethiopia.)
The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, which shares the task of caring for new immigrants, are expected to spend at least $300 million over the next two years in integrating the Ethiopian Jews into Israeli life.
Nearly 1,000 employees of the Jewish Agency are working with the newcomers. A voluntary Public Council for Ethiopian Jews has mobilized hundreds of others, who are doing everything from helping the new arrivals open bank accounts to advising them on printing a newspaper in Amharic.
Learning on Both Sides But beyond helping the Ethiopians prepare for Israel, the Israelis must be prepared for the Ethiopians. Steven Kaplan, a Hebrew University African specialist who has been asked to consult on the project, said that to this end the Ministry of Education is assembling a traveling exhibit that will offer junior high and high school students a look at Ethiopian Jewish culture.
Many of the Ethiopians have been disoriented by the move and about 300 of them have suffered such extreme culture and psychological shock that they required hospital care. Chaim Hershko, director of Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Hospital, said they showed symptoms similar to those of Jews rescued from Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II.
"They suffered from shock and refused to be separated from their relatives," he said. "They had no faith in the medical teams treating them, were frightened by physicians' white uniforms, and hid food under their mattresses and beds."