Editorial: Avera Mengistu is Still a Hamas Prisoner. Why?

Sept. 9, 2020 – There is a common myth in Israel that it will never desert one of its own. Israel has cooperated beyond courage to bring back those killed on the battlefield. IDF officials have negotiated in the past with Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, even terrorist groups, often trading hundreds of captive Palestinian terrorists and enemy combatants for the body of one IDF fighter.

Recall Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who, in June 2006, was captured by Hamas terrorists entering Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing through their intricate tunnel system. Shalit was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years.

Israel and the Shalit family, which had resources thanks to campaigns in Jewish communities worldwide, kept his name and his plight at the centre of events. In October 2011, following tense and often fractious negotiations through intermediaries, Shalit was finally released in exchange for some 1,000 Arab and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, 280 of whom were serving life terms for carrying out deadly attacks against Israeli targets.

The treasuring of each Israeli citizen was, and continues to be, the truest test of Israel’s character.

Sadly however, in the case of Avera Mengistu, the credo of “no Israeli left behind if captured by enemy combatants” does not seem to hold true. Some feel racism is to blame.

Mengistu and his large family arrived in Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 when he was five years old. Theirs was not an easy life. His father found it difficult to find work and the only income for the clan came from Avera’s mother, who cleaned homes in Ashkelon, near the Gaza border.

Avera’s life went from bad to worse following the death of his beloved eldest brother. He turned to friends for money, and his mental health became fragile to the point where he underwent psychiatric treatment. In March 2013, the IDF determined that Avera was not fit for military service. During this time, his mental health deteriorated even more.

A few months later, in circumstances that remain vague, Avera was seen near the Zikim beach on the Israeli-Gaza border. An IDF unit thought he was one of many Sudanese refugees who were trying to get into Gaza. He was last spotted near the security fence, and by the time Israeli border guards arrived, he had disappeared into Gaza. He has not been seen since.

There were some minor attempts to have him returned to Israel. All failed. In an interview with Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that Avera was in Gaza. He claimed the Ethiopian was wearing a uniform, was mentally healthy, and was part of ongoing negotiations relating to the 2014 Gaza-Israel truce talks.

And this is where Avera’s fate has largely stood to this day. Unlike the case of Shalit, there has been little mass public outcry from Israeli authorities for his release. His family, who are among the poverty-stricken Ethiopians in Israel, have no resources to fight for his release.

There is an inescapable feeling that the reason Avera’s case is not being handled with the determination and seriousness of other kidnapped Israelis is because he’s Ethiopian – and Black. Indeed, one of Avera’s brothers, Yalo, noted in an interview with Ha’aretz that “it’s more than racism. I call it ‘anti-Blackism.’ I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”

Hamas has also not lost sight of the fact that Avera’s case has garnered little attention, though there have been sporadic reports of Hamas demands for a prisoner exchange with Israel for his release. Notably, Hamas has used the racial bias issue as a propaganda chip. On its Twitter platform, a Hamas message claimed “obviously the real Israeli motto is ‘leave no Ashkenazi (white Israeli) man behind.’”

This is a sad story of one man suffering from severe mental health problems. It seems sadly clear that both Israel and Hamas view the situation through the colour of his skin. It’s time that both sides see Avera as a man who must be returned to his family. His life matters and we cannot be silent.

Canadians Help Fund Education, Cancer Research in Israel

Aug. 12, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canadian philanthropists are giving more than $3 million to Israeli universities to fight cancer and clear hurdles to higher education for Ethiopian Israelis and Israel Defense Forces veterans.

For Sylvia Soyka of Markham, Ont., the money her family’s foundation is giving to Canadian and Israeli pancreatic cancer researchers is a personal commitment to overcome the disease that killed her father.

Sylvia Soyka
Sylvia Soyka

“This is very personal for me, and that’s why the project is named for my father,” Sylvia Soyka said in an interview. “The one thing I’ve come to understand about this disease is that nobody understands much about it, other than it’s very bad.

“There is an urgent need to shine a light on this disease now,” she added.

The Soyka Foundation’s grant will finance the second phase of research projects in the two countries looking for treatments and early diagnosis techniques.

Alex Soyka
Alex Soyka

Early diagnosis of the disease is especially important, Soyka said, because while her father was 90 when he was stricken, its victims are usually much younger.

“This is a young person’s disease,” she said. “Its victims go very quickly and often leave young families. It’s a horrible disease.

While progress is being made – when the first stage of the research started in 2014, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer was less than five percent – today it is nine percent.

“We’re making huge progress, but even doubling the survival rate still leaves you in a pretty scary place,” she said.

Soyka would not discuss the specific amount of the donation, other than to say there’s still a huge need for support.

“To a large degree it doesn’t matter because no matter how much it is it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “There is a huge need because there is still such a knowledge gap in this field.”

The Soyka Foundation’s support will finance researchers from Hebrew University’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center.

Ethiopian students hoping education will be their ladder up in Israeli society will get a boost from the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation grant.

Morris and Rosalind Goodman
Morris and Rosalind Goodman

Morris Goodman, now 89, co-founded Pharmascience Inc., now the second largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in Canada. The Goodman Foundation was endowed in 2008 and focuses on scientific research to improves public health, experiential and informal education and community capacity building.

The Montreal-based foundation is partnering with Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University to provide scholarships for needy Ethiopian Israeli students who are engaged in social, community or academic leadership activities.

Divided equally between the universities, the gift will support students pursuing graduate studies while highlighting the importance of higher education in this demographic and promoting community engagement.

Foundation president Maxyne Finkelstein said Ethiopian Israelis are held back in life because they’re denied the chance at higher education.

“In Canada people go for a second and third degree because they want to achieve the most they can,” she said in an interview. “In this case, you have a population where very few of them are able to access these opportunities.”

Israel is home to about 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants who started arriving in the country 35 years ago. According to a news release from Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, about half live below the poverty line, they are sharply under-represented in the country’s universities, and often face financial hardship in pursuing education.

Finkelstein noted that in a country where up to 45 percent of the general population has 16 years of education, only about 10 percent of Ethiopians get through to a bachelors degree.

“We looked at a gap in society and asked if there was something we could do to create greater social mobility and a real step forward toward greater financial independence and family stability for the future,” she said.

The scholarships will cover tuition and living expenses and are not targeted at any particular field of study. The only condition on the support is that applicants must do some form of community volunteer work.

“We want to advance Ethiopians in fields where they want to advance and where they feel they can make a contribution to society,” Finkelstein said. “We feel these people can be role models to other young Ethiopians, and this is an area where we can create a real social change.”

Finkelstein would not disclose the value of the gift. Applicants for the next university semester are already being recruited.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro of Calgary are investing $625,000 in a five-year program of scholarships for young Israelis who have completed their mandatory military service but who lack money for further education.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro
Lenny and Faigel Shapiro

“I have always been attracted to the IDF soldiers, these young people who come out of the army at age 22 and have no money to go to school,” Lenny Shapiro said in an interview.

“I want them to be able to have an education and get a degree,” he said. “When I was a young man in Montreal, I didn’t have that chance until I could go to night school.”

Shapiro made his money as head of Allied Resources Management in western Canada’s oil business. The scholarship program is currently supporting 60 students and he hopes to expand that to 100.

The value of each award is being increased. In addition of portion of the Shapiro gift will be matched by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University and Hebrew University.

The Shapiro scholarships cover tuition costs only. 

As the World Grapples With Racism, Israel Seeks to Empower Ethiopian Youth

By SHARON GELBACH

The growing protests against racism in the United States have aroused strong feelings worldwide, and Israel is no exception. Ethiopian Israelis have long complained of prejudice and being treated as second-class citizens.

Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s national hospital, enjoys a global reputation for medical innovation, but many are unaware that it is also at the forefront of helping to integrate members of various minority groups in Israel.

In the past several years, Sheba has integrated hundreds of new Ethiopian olim (immigrants) into the hospital workforce, going as far to provide them with free classes to help them navigate Israeli bureaucracy and improve their language skills.

Most recently, Prof. Eldad Katorza, senior physician at Sheba, decided to give youth from the Ethiopian community a head start by folding them into a pilot program within “Project Arrow,” which he directs.

“Project Arrow” (chetz in Hebrew, the initials of chokrim tze’irim, meaning “young researchers”) is an apprenticeship program for medical students designed to pave their way into the world of medical research.

Established in 2006, the initiative matches select medical students with experienced researchers to serve as mentors. During once- or twice-weekly meetings, the student-mentor team works through every stage of medical research, from formulating the initial question, to collecting and analyzing data, to presenting the results at medical conferences.

This year, for the first time, each research duo included a third tier: high school students from the Ethiopian community.

Katorza believes in the importance of encouraging students to pursue research, noting that in medical school, they do not receive sufficient exposure to research thinking or methodology.

“I believe that research makes a doctor more knowledgeable, more curious, more creative,” he said. “A doctor who engages in research is a much better doctor.”

Employing this premise, Katorza now plans to open several slots for nursing school students in the coming year’s program.

“Nursing is also a field that stands to benefit greatly from adding researching to its ranks; it will raise the bar of nursing in Israel,” he said.

Even in the early stages of planning the pilot program for the Ethiopian high school students, it quickly became evident to Katorza just how crucial, timely, and challenging his initiative was.

“I asked my son, then in 11th grade, to look around his own school in Givatayim for students from the Ethiopian community who might be suitable for the program,” said Katorza. “As it turned out, there wasn’t a single Ethiopian student in his school, nor in any of the good schools in the area.”

The reason can be traced to the socioeconomic realities in Israel today. By and large, members of the Ethiopian community tend to dwell in poorer neighborhoods where community services and schools are on a lower level.

These conditions put Ethiopian teens at a disadvantage from the outset, and due to economic necessity, youth are pushed to join the workforce at an early age, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

“Almost four decades have passed since the first wave of Ethiopian aliyah,” observed Katorza, “yet judging from their rate of participation in academia, their level of affluence and other markers of social mobility, it appears that the government has failed to take the necessary steps to help them bridge the gaps and facilitate their successful absorption into mainstream Israeli society.”

Anxious to change that trend, Katorza decided to include outstanding students from the Ethiopian community in “Project Arrow.”

But it wasn’t simple to locate high school students from the Ethiopian sector who met the criteria for participation in the program: High marks in the sciences, high motivation and interest, and living near enough to the Sheba campus to attend weekly meetings.

Ultimately, Katorza was aided by an organization called Fidel (“alphabet” in Amharic), which promotes the education and social integration of Ethiopian-Israeli youth.

The Fidel staff welcomed the opportunity to incorporate Ethiopian students into the program, and provided 10 candidates, from which the top five were chosen.

Katorza said the pilot was a resounding success and will be repeated in the coming year.

“We found that once they are freed from the limitations of their environment, the students manifested amazing capabilities,” he said. “We endeavored to help build their self-confidence, empower them, and teach them that they can do anything they put their mind to.”

Throughout the year, in addition to their full participation in research, the Ethiopian high-schoolers were also exposed to clinical activity at the hospital.

“At the beginning of the year, the students didn’t have any specific plans for the future,” Katorza said. “Now, they are now seriously considering a medical career.”

One of those is Yair Jalmar, 17, from Beer Yaakov, who participated in a research project with pediatric cardiologist Dr. Shai Tejman.

“This project helped me develop my interest in medicine and learn more about the advanced technologies and devices as well as the various departments in the medical field,” Jalmar said.

Former participants in the Arrow Project have gone on to publish their findings in prestigious medical journals, and several have joined the team at Sheba.


Sharon Gelback
Sharon Gelbach

Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto and moved to Israel in 1982. She is a writer, editor and translator and lives with her husband and family in Jerusalem.