Sunday, June 16, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Israeli Parliament To Get Its First Ethiopian Jew


ETHIOPIAN IMMIGRANTS, who have experienced both generosity and discrimination in Israel, have a new sense of belonging with the election of one of their own to parliament.

BAT YAM, Israel - Addisu Messele grew up in an African mud hut, the youngest of 11 children of a sharecropper. Tomorrow he will become the first Ethiopian Jew to be sworn in as a member of Israel's Parliament.

Messele said his rise to a position of influence has given a new sense of belonging to 60,000 Ethiopian Jews who were brought to Israel in dramatic airlifts, but have since run up against a wall of discrimination and hostility.

Messele, 35, said he was inundated with phone calls from Ethiopian immigrants after the election two weeks ago. "For many of them it had seemed impossible," he said. "They didn't believe any of us would see the inside of Parliament in this generation."

Like many of his constituents, Messele, who arrived in Israel in 1980, feels both gratitude and bitterness toward Israel.

"Show me another country that would have made such an effort to rescue its kin," he said, referring to the 1984 and 1991 airlifts that took Ethiopian Jews away from civil war and hunger.

After their arrival, immigrants received generous financial aid, including grants that covered 90 percent of mortgages.

But the Chief Rabbinate, Israel's highest religious authority, now insists that Ethiopians undergo a "conversion" ceremony, even though they already are Jews. The ceremony includes a ritual bath and men must have blood drawn from their penis even though they are already circumcised.

Several years ago, Messele organized a demonstration outside the Rabbinate that lasted 32 days. The rabbis agreed to drop the "conversion" ceremonies, but they later reneged on their promise.

Messele's fight for his community began early. At 17, he walked for four weeks across the desert to Sudan, then started smuggling other Ethiopian Jews along the same route.

This spring, the Ethiopians' anger sparked violence for the first time after they learned that their blood donations were secretly being thrown away on orders of the Health Ministry, which feared the blood might be infected with the AIDS virus.

At a demonstration organized by Messele, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants threw stones at club-wielding police outside the prime minister's office. Several policemen and demonstrators were hurt.

The riot pushed the Ethiopians' demands to the top of the public agenda for the first time, and also helped Messele get elected in Labor Party primaries.

The party had reserved one of its parliamentary slots for an immigrant and held a separate election for it. Party leader Shimon Peres had favored one of the Russian emigre contenders because Russian voters outnumber Ethiopians 300-1, but Messele won by a big majority.

Messele said he might show up at tomorrow's swearing-in of the new Parliament members in the traditional white robes worn by Ethiopian men, in a show of ethnic pride.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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