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Late last year Israel accepted what’s set to be the final wave of Ethiopian immigrants. But the country is still struggling to integrate the 120,000 who’ve arrived over the past three decades.

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Ethiopian Jewish children playing in Netanya, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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Malkamu Chani spent 10 years in a camp in Gondar, Ethiopia, waiting for permission to move to Israel. In early January, he finally flew to the promised land and moved with his wife and child to a spare, two-room immigrant-housing apartment in Mevasseret Zion outside Jerusalem. His neighborhood was a sea of clotheslines strung across modest backyards. The acrid smell of green coffee beans roasting in nonstick frying pans filled the tiny space that serves as his living room and kitchen. Chani, 28, who worked as a nurse in Ethiopia, wore a striped collared shirt and a knit blue yarmulke on his head.

“Ethiopia is a good country,” Chani said in halting English outside his new home when asked why he wanted to leave Africa. “The government is good. The main problem is that everything is expensive.”

Chani is one of the last 8,000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish roots who will immigrate en masse to Israel, following a government decision in late November. It marks the end of a dramatic transfer of Ethiopia’s entire 2,000-year-old Jewish community, which began fleeing pogroms and persecution in 1970s. In covert operations in 1984 and 1991, Israeli pilots flew 22,000 Ethiopians to the Jewish state in overflowing airplanes. Since 1991, Ethiopians known as Falash Mura have claimed Jewish roots and the right to immigrate, although their ancestors converted to Christianity in the late 19th century. Until November, these Falash Mura gathered in transit camps in Gondar, Ethiopia, while Israeli officials debated whether to accept them. November’s decision, which requires the new immigrants to convert to Judaism upon arrival, marks the end of that debate.

But as the newest immigrants arrive and settle in Israel, the 120,000-strong Ethiopian-Israeli community has seen only limited success in integration.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 the unemployment rate of 13.8 percent among Ethiopian immigrants was more than double the national average. Ethiopians were statistically younger than the overall Jewish Israeli population, with four times as many single-parent families. While 17 percent of Jewish Israelis were on some sort of welfare, Ethiopian-Israelis receiving state support ran at 61 percent. Their children scored lower on school tests and were more likely to drop out of high school than their veteran Israeli counterparts. This is surprising because a third of Ethiopian-Israelis were born in the Jewish state, which would seem to portend better integration.

Activists point to this data as an indicator of the government’s poor preparation for helping the immigrants’ transition from simple agrarian villages to urban Israeli life. “The Ethiopian-Israeli community is probably in the worst shape of the Jewish population in Israel,” said D’vora Greisman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews.

When Ethiopians first arrived, Greisman said, the community developed some strength that has since waned. “There has been a stagnation,” she said. “This new wave of immigration seems to be following the same footsteps of those who came over 20 years ago. They are going back to poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The government has not switched policy.”

But others take a different view. David Yaso trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan over six weeks on his way to Israel at age 14. He and his family arrived in Israel in 1981 and spent a year in the Atlit absorption center near Haifa before moving to public rental housing in the southern city of Beer Sheva. After three years in boarding school, Yaso enlisted in the army as a paratrooper and served for seven years. Since 1993 he has worked in the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, helping newcomers from Ethiopia adjust.

Yaso’s immigration was not flawless. He said he donated blood every three months until 1996, when the state admitted that all Ethiopian-donated blood had been discarded for fear of AIDS. Yaso brought 11 buses of furious Ethiopian immigrants to Jerusalem to protest and has not donated blood since. Still, as he looked at photos from a trip he took last year to retrace the steps he took as a teen, he said the move was worth it.

“My father worked as a farmer, a weapons maker, and a blacksmith,” Yaso said in his Jerusalem office. The white walls were covered in sketches of Ethiopian tools and certificates of recognition for his work. “We were never hungry. But to tell you I would get to the place [of responsibility] I am today in Ethiopia—no.” This kind of advancement, he said, “is only in Israel and Jerusalem.”

Israeli immigration policy has evolved since Yaso arrived. According to Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz, in the past, non-Ethiopian Israelis ran the absorption centers. Now the directors share the same roots as their charges. Moreover, Yaso noted that the state has stopped assigning Ethiopian-Israelis public rental housing in favor of grants for mortgages. Ofer Dahan, who oversees the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian project, said the Jewish Agency is trying to give new immigrants more tools for success, from practicing school registration in the absorption centers to offering technical courses and career counseling. Beginning in April, his organization will open classes in Gondar to prepare the new immigrants for Israel. They will learn Hebrew and Judaism in Ethiopia, which should help them make a faster transition.

In the Mevasseret Zion absorption center in January, a class of 14 older men and women who had moved to Israel eight months earlier learned a list of words beginning with “aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Few wrote; they were barely literate. Their teacher, Arega Tadesse, immigrated in 1987 and spoke to the students in a mix of Hebrew and Amharic, the language of some northern Ethiopians. Another room in the center had a “supermarket ulpan,” where students learn to identify packaged goods like rice, soap, and microwave pizza. Volunteer Adar Sharon said that while the older generation rarely strays from homemade injera, or sour flatbread, their children demand the same industrial food their Israeli classmates eat at school. The immigrants are allowed to stay at the center for two years, after which they receive a grant of up to $135,000 to buy a house elsewhere, Dahan said. Many leave earlier if they find jobs, which are relatively easy to get in Jerusalem. Those who stay longer risk losing their mortgage grants.

Chani, the nurse who just arrived, hopes to find a job nursing in Israel—once he learns the language. He does not know where he will live, but he is considering Jerusalem. His brother-in-law, who immigrated two years ago, has already found work manufacturing drugs at Teva, Israel’s largest pharmaceutical company.

But not all absorption centers are alike. Jankelowitz said there are 21 centers processing Ethiopians in Israel. These immigrants are separated from immigrants from the Western world, he said, because many come from rural areas and are illiterate and unfamiliar with money or basic modern home appliances like stoves and toilets. The Mevasseret Zion center houses the newcomers in one-story houses; students wander the center’s large campus in the winter sun. Other centers are less attractive. Some are tall, crumbling blocks, like the Kalisher absorption center in Beer Sheva. In 2008, immigrants from the northern Beit Alfa absorption center protested in Jerusalem, complaining they could not get jobs because they were marooned in a pocket of poverty eight miles from the nearest city. Their children traveled 40 minutes each way to school because the state required them to study in Orthodox academies, while the nearest city, Beit Shean, refused to enroll them. In response, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption pledged to find more convenient solutions to the children’s schooling.

Some of the Falash Mura immigrants arriving in the coming years will be put in Beit Alfa and Beer Sheva, Jankelowitz said.

Moreover, second-generation Ethiopian immigrants highlight the difficulty of sustaining successful policy after the first wave. A slew of nongovernmental organizations developed to serve the community, ranging from policy think-tanks to training programs. Ethiopians have an Israeli television station. In 2008 Israel officially recognized the Sigd holiday, which Ethiopian Jews celebrate 50 days after Yom Kippur to commemorate accepting the Torah. That year the government also pledged 700 million shekels (about $200 million) for a five-year Ethiopian aid program. A year later, the Israeli government announced that 30 civil-service positions would be earmarked for Ethiopian-Israelis, in addition to 15 reserved the year earlier.

But according to IEAJ spokeswoman Greisman, despite all the programs, Ethiopian college graduates struggle to find jobs. Last April, private-school administrators in the city of Petach Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, refused to accept some Ethiopian children, triggering cries of racism. And the housing grants stipulate where the immigrants can live, including some of Israel’s “worst, inner-city, disgusting and drug infested” neighborhoods, Greisman said, although she declined to name them. Yaso said these restrictions aim to avoid segregation by dispersing Ethiopians nationwide.

Arnon Mantver is director-general of the Israeli arm of the Joint Distribution Committee, which helps needy Jews around the world, using funds donated mostly by North American Jews. He also headed the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department during the mass immigration to Israel from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union. Today, he says, Ethiopians have “islands of success” in early childhood education, college attendance, and women in the workforce. Moreover, the army has proved a great leveler, with 90 percent of boys and 69 percent of girls joining the force, far more than mainstream Israelis. Although there are still large gaps between Ethiopians and the wider Israeli public, Mantver chalks that difference up to the challenge of integrating immigrants from the third world into a competitive, Western economy.

“I thought it would take 10 years,” to integrate the Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, he said. “I see after 20 that the problem is not solved.” Mantver said that North American Jews, who pressured the Israeli government to accept the Falash Mura, must make a redoubled effort to close gaps. “We don’t want to create a black underclass in Israel,” he said.

Veteran Ethiopian immigrant Adiso Zahay praised the Jewish Agency’s plans to emphasize jobs, which he said was a weak point in the past. Zahay supervises the Ethiopian National Project, a donor-funded organization that runs after-school and education programs for children. He noted that the new immigrants, who will have lived off donations for years in camps in Gondar, will need a particular push.

“Don’t just give mortgages,” he said. “It is crucial to get employment for the Ethiopian community. If we in Israeli society—the veteran Ethiopians and the state—if we discount this point, we will create a situation where the immigrants will not work, their children will learn from their parents to be parasites, and we will educate a generation that will not know how to work.”

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Miriam H says:

The amount of resources the Israeli gvt & NGOs have spent over the years to “integrate” Ethiopian Jews is absolutely staggering — in absolute terms, and especially so by comparison with the resources that have been invested on other immigrants, like, for example, Russian speaking Jews. Yet the difference in results is quite simply depressing.

I don’t think more money, “programs”, & handouts from the already stressed welfare system are going to make a significant difference. There has to be a change of approach. And I think that change must come from the Ethiopian community itself — less reliance on squeezing out public resources, more responsibility and accountability.

Jason M says:

@Miriam – Then what do you exactly propose? Waiting for the Ethiopian community to change on its own? I agree that a different approach should be taken, but hoping and praying for someone else to do something? That hardly sounds constructive.

The Israeli government should probably look at ways of expanding and propagating those “islands of success.” I suppose it is already trying to do so, just understanding now that this process takes longer than any of us would like.

Jason P says:

@Miriam, I don’t disagree with your assessment that the Israeli government and NGOs have spent significant resources to “integrate” Ethiopian Jews – although you cite no data to support your assertion that this is more than that spent to “invested” on other immigrants. Specifically, I would ask if you are comparing apples to apples – perhaps communities from certain backgrounds needs more support because the relative change for that group is larger, particularly as it relates to learning to live a completely different kind of life. I’m not sure why “integrate” is included in quotatation marks – perhaps you can ellucidate.

Even if everything you say is correct, the way Israel funds communities is highly relevant to any analysis of comparitive spending. Because Israel funds communities largely from national funds (whereas in the U.S. funding comes primarily from local tax sources), disbursements of these national funds are particularly relevant for analysis of the Ethiopian Jewish situation. For example, are the communities Ethiopian Jews move to (because of governmental fiat) underserved by way of schools and other services? If so, it may be that they actually receive fewer services per-capita than their Russian or other immigrant group bretheren.

Too bad Israel doesn’t have more thoughtful policies than integration – seems like such a significant waste of national resources (both the cultural assets of the Ethiopians and the $ spent).

Marty Janner says:

,The Ethiopians remind me of the influx of persons from Yemen who immigrated many years ago. They too were quite primitive, the educational system was segregated. Ashkenazi children were taught separately, resulting in unequal schooling. Despite of this situation, over time they were able to overcome this disparity, becoming productive citizens, competitive with those that come from more advanced societies!

We now have an influx of persons, whom come from a place where they were subjected to many indignities, why, because they had the timerity to maintain their identities as followers of their Jewish Faith as they understood it to be! This drive and commitment is to be honored, we should think of them as heroes and make every effort to accomodate them.
Time will cure all!

Miriam H says:

I have worked for a large umbrella NGO and speak from direct access to facts & figures — though I can’t cite off the cuff as right now I am traveling out of Israel.

I agree that projects that have worked should be strengthened. For example, most of the new Ethiopian-Israeli leadership has come out of the Yemin Orde educational village. What works should be better studied and “replicated” as much as possible.

I think an effort should be made to strengthen and support Ethiopian-led organizations to promote communal responsibility, accountability, & authentic leadership. I have worked (as a project manager) with Ethiopian Jews, and while I respect many of the people I have met, I also don’t “buy” the heroic mythology around this community. Their continued reliance on government handouts only fosters the chain of dependence and marginalization.

This article raises some interesting questions. There is a new movement of Ethiopian communities that are organizing to empower residents and create change from within. These groups are active in places such as Beit Shemesh, Gedera, Kiryat Gat and others and are worth following. Yahel – Israel Service Learning runs programs in collaboration with these communities and we see that things can be different when people are supported in organizing for themselves.

Kurt Steinbach says:

Change happens slowly. Immigrants to the U.S., especially Jewish immigrants often took a generation or two to fully integrate into American society. Usually, the generation that integrates is working class or “blue collar” workers. The next generation becomes the first to graduate an American High School, and the third generation becomes the first to attend and graduate an American college. It often depends on where the immigrants started from. If many are illiterate in their native language, this slows things down even more. In order to learn a new language, conversational competence takes one to two years to develop, and academic (reading and writing) competence takes a further 5-7 years thereafter. Remember, that would require literacy in their native language (Ethopian).

I think that the task of integrating a large immigrant population is a daunting one, and that Israel has done better than most nations on this note. The key is education, starting with literacy and steady employment while this is pursued. Once basic literacy is accomplished, upward mobility will develop much more quickly. Remember, Israel is a relatively young, unique nation. I think they are doing a fine job. The process is evolving and developing and should be a model for the rest of the world to follow. I make these comments as an educator with a Master of Arts in Teaching with a specialty in Language Arts and English as a Second Language

Dana T is right. It is coming and it is about self empowerment and building communities from inside out. Some confirmation can be seen in the US where the urban farming movement is well received in underserved neighborhood and especially with Hispanic immigrants and African American from the second and third generations. Both communities have a historic background rooted in agriculture but it took the need to skip one genration at least to accept and utilize the connection to agriculture in an a urban environment.

Dalia W says:

I would just like to take this opportunity to highlight one of the Israeli programs for Ethiopian integration and education-
Israel At Heart’s fellowship for outstanding Ethiopian students provides motviated individuals with full scholarships to the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya. I met recently with a number of these fellows and they are all young, intelligent and optimistic about Ethiopian identity in Israel. Through such programs – ones the reward merit and directly fund education – we will hopefully see successful, positive integration of Ethiopians into Israeli society.

I would also like to note that we are currently in the midst of the so-called Israeli Apartheid Week. It is crucial to remember that the term “apartheid” here is being used as a horrid misnomer, and one of the contradiction to the term is the sheer diversity of the Israeli population. “Refugees” is a loaded term in the Middle East, but while the Palestinian refugee situation was exploited by Arab countries until ’67 and subsequently by the PA and PLO, Ethiopian and other African and Arab refugees have been readily accepted by Israel. Israel’s enthusiasm of absorption is an important point to be made on college campuses, particularly when Israel is demonized as an apartheid state.

Robin Margolis says:

As someone who regularly reads the Israeli newspapers, I would like to offer some thoughts. First, Ethiopian Jews have been subjected to tremendous racial prejudice in Israel, just like African-Americans in America. It is no accident that the Ethiopian Jews of Israel remain clustered in what are, in effect, a few segregated neighborhoods.

I also see prejudicial language about them in the Israeli press that is painfully reminiscent of the prejudicial language still used by white Americans about African-Americans.

An Israeli Jewish scholar, publicly a liberal, shocked me by saying to me: “Robin, why do American Jews care so much about black [Ethiopian] Jews? If you love them so much, why don’t you American Jews bring them to America. We’re sick of them. We want married white Anglo [Jewish] couples with money, preferably from England and America.”

There is persistent propaganda coming out of Israel that Israel is this marvellous multicultural society with no regard for skin color. But as a regular reader of Israeli newspapers — left, right and center — free, online and in English — anyone can read them — I can assure you that Israel is bitterly stratified by types of Judaism practiced, skin color, and country of origin cultures.

Please review the refusal of several Askenazi (white) Haredi schools to admit Sephardic (from Arabic countries) children. And those children are not black — they’re brown!

As far as the ‘help’ that the Ethiopian Jews have received from the Israelis — for decades almost no social workers were trained who spoke any Ethiopian language — even now there are very few. Their religious leaders were treated with disdain by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate as not legitimate rabbis. Ethiopian Jews are being severely pressured to give up their own rich Jewish religious traditions and texts and adopt Haredi Ashkenazi Orthodox clothing and religious practices and texts.

That’s not ‘help.’ Google the Israeli newspapers and see for yourselves.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Dalia W:

I would suggest that Israel’s track record on absorption of the Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews is not a corrective to Israel Apartheid Week.

You may wish to look more closely at the memoirs of many Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews about their arrival in Israel and how they were treated on arrival, which are discussed in Israel’s newspapers all the time.

One reason the Likud and Shas parties exist is the profound resentment of the Sephardic Jews from Arab countries against the way the Ashkenazi white Jewish elite treated them upon arrival in Israel. To this day, some Likud and Shas politicians reflexively attribute any criticisms of them to racial prejudice by white Ashkenazi Israeli Jews.

If the organizers of the Israel Apartheid Week events ever review the endless stories of prejudice against Israel’s brown and black citizens freely discussed in Israel’s press, they will have more ammunition for their arguments regarding the Palestinians rather than less.

beni says:

Robin – you should stop reading the newspaper and see the reality yourself. Newspaper and reality are 2 different things. Newspapers only speak of bad things because it sells. Israel is not perfect but your picture of the situation has more or less nothing to do with what’s going on on the field.
By the way, Sefaradic Jews are white, not brown. Mizrahi Jews are more brownish. Sefaradi and Ashkenazi Jews are genetically very similar, but culturally slightly less (mainly because of the last 200 years).

Chana Batya says:

Why are we talking about color when we talk about Jews? This is a shande. A yid is a yid is a yid, or for the non-European origin Jews, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. As if making a distinction between white, brown and black means anything to God! What a joke, “they’re not black, they’re brown.” Oh, well, then, ok. Jeez. Israel is not paradise, and there has been prejudice and institutionalized racism between European Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, but it’s time for us to just STOP. The Ethiopians, like the Yeminis, the Libyan and Tunisian Jews, and yes, olim from the shtetlach, were all somewhat backward compared to those who had more education and opportunity in their lives. But isn’t Israel about being a Jewish homeland, not just an Ashkenazi one? The Ethiopians were terribly technologically and educationally deprived, and may take generations to modernize. Think of the freed slaves in the US, how long it’s taken them to catch up, and that’s due to a combination of factors including prejudice and institutionalized racism, but also due to the effects of generations of not being able to go to school, to speak up to authority, to make one’s own decisions? Let’s stop blaming and realize the issue with the new olim will not be settled quickly, but we cannot cease from struggling to find a solution that grows their dignity and effectiveness in modern society.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

All I can say is was it better for the Ethiopians, some not really Jews, to remain in Ethiopia?

Last time I read about the Ethiopian Jews who never saw a toilet until they came to Israel, complaining about Racism. Now, things are not good enough for them in a modern country. I saw the huts that the Ethiopions lived in before Israel brought them to civilization.

Would it have been better if they remained in Ethiopia?

Has Al Sharpton been visiting Israel in the past few years?

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Beni, Chana Batya, and Dorothy Wachsttock:

Beni: “Robin – you should stop reading the newspaper and see the reality yourself. Newspaper and reality are 2 different things. Newspapers only speak of bad things because it sells.”

Robin: Beni, your newspapers seem truthful to me. There are also websites for the Ethiopian Jewish organizations that have a lot to say.

Chana Batya: You’re correct that it will take a while for the Ethiopian Jews to adjust to Israel. I support you on that one very strongly. But we can’t ignore racism or “color” as factor in the treatment of the Ethiopian Jews by not discussing it.

It would be nice if Israeli and American Jewish communities had no racism, but we do, and it is important that it be discussed, so that people will know it exists and it is not OK. If we don’t discuss it, it simply continues.

Dorothy Wachsstock, some Ethiopians miss Ethiopia. Israel did not turn out as they had hoped. No amount of modern conveniences will make up for knowing that other people look down on you for the color of your skin. Their social structures were disrupted, their religious leaders and texts were disrespected — the Ethiopians got a worse reception than the Yemenites.

Benjamin says:

Robin: “your newspapers seem truthful to me.”

Are you so naive ? Are you even serious ? Anyone with a brain sees that there is a vast gap between reality and the newspapers in any country. Newspapers just want to sell and make money. They sell not information but entertainment, shock, scandals. So they emphasize the bad stuff – that do exist but is much more marginal than waht they say.

If you want to know ehat’s really going on, just come. Until you do, your opinion has no value.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Benjamin:

If Israeli newspapers and television programs — which American Jews can now see, thanks to the internet — are good enough for Israelis to form opinions about their own country, then surely they are good enough for American Jews and other Americans to reach conclusions about Israel, including its difficulties with the Ethiopian Jews.

Benjamin says:

Israelis don’t have any faith in their own media. They live in Israel, they don’t need a journalist to tell them what’s going on. You are really becoming ridiculous.

Dalia W says:

Robin, I do not question the fact that racism exists in Israel – as it does around the world. In my comment, I hoped to highlight a private program that specifically aims to uplift the Ethiopian community.
This weekend, I met with members of an Ethiopian delegation that traveled around college campuses, sharing their experiences of migration and absorption with American students. And while they themselves acknowledged that they encounter racism, that negative concept has not been manifest by the Israeli government, whose purpose is to represent the Israeli nation. Indeed, an unquestioned policy of affirmative action for Ethiopians exists in Israel and has been in place for a number of years, as evidenced by this report in 1996::
One of the best methods for absorbing a population is education, and my purpose was to showcase an organization that has been practicing this method successfully.

Dalia W says:

There is no excuse for racism, that is without a doubt. But condemning Israel openly for exhibiting racism – rather than promoting efforts to diminish racism and expand opportunities(such as fellowships for outstanding Ethiopian leaders) – appears to be a regressive activitiy.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Benjamin and Dalia W.:

Benjamin: “Israelis don’t have any faith in their own media. They live in Israel, they don’t need a journalist to tell them what’s going on. You are really becoming ridiculous”

Robin replies: Israelis buy Israeli newspapers and watch Israeli television. If it is good for enough for the Israelis, it is good enough for the rest of the world.

I am certain that if Israelis didn’t approve of their own newspapers and television shows, they would subscribing to them and advertising in them.

Dalia W.: No one was criticizing Israel At Heart. But when you suggested that the existence of Ethiopian Jews be used to fight Israel Apartheid Week — that’s when the discussion shifted.

As I pointed out, highighting the existence of Ethiopian Jews during Israel Apartheid Week would likely seriously backfire, given how Ethiopian Jews are treated in Israel.

Dalia W.: “But condemning Israel openly for exhibiting racism – rather than promoting efforts to diminish racism and expand opportunities(such as fellowships for outstanding Ethiopian leaders) – appears to be a regressive activitiy”

Robin replies: How can we “diminish racism” and “expand opportunitites” for Ethiopian Jews without discussing racism against them “openly”? Problems must be acknowledged before they can be solved.

Maxine Dovere says:

Establishment of a one to one mentor program along the lines of the Jewish Big Borther/Big Sister prgoram must be considered. Going beyond the generality of “community” – yet nutured within the community – to the strength that a caring mentorship provides is incalcuable.

Robin Margolis says:

Months ago, I was told in the comments on this thread, basically, that I shouldn’t trust Israeli news reports about discrimination against the Ethiopians.

Well, here is an article from the Jerusalem Post in which the Ethiopian Jewish community has finally called for affirmative action laws to protect them from their poor treatment within Israeli society:

No Registration Date even today !

I’ve said that least 3105377 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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Late last year Israel accepted what’s set to be the final wave of Ethiopian immigrants. But the country is still struggling to integrate the 120,000 who’ve arrived over the past three decades.

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