The two words in Hebrew caught my attention. I had asked one of the Jewish Agency officials to allow me to copy some of the English spellings from a list of names of 75 Ethiopian citizens immigrating to Israel on the flight that had just landed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

On the margin, in tiny Hebrew letters, were the names of the absorption centers they were headed to, so the Jewish Agency representatives who would process them upon landing would know on which bus to put each family. Under the place name Kiryat Gat, Be’er Sheva, Safed, some had written ichud mishpachot - family reunification, noting that they already have families living in Israel who would be meeting them at the airport.

For many years, family reunification has meant something entirely different in Israeli legal parlance. The Citizenship and Entry Law, passed almost exactly 10 years ago on July 31, 2003 as a temporary order, which has been renewed every year since, denies the rights of Palestinian civilians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be reunited with their Israeli spouses.

Even before this legislation, it was extremely difficult for Israeli citizens to get a residency permit for their Palestinian spouses, but the law meant the authorities no longer had to justify their refusal. The law, which has twice been upheld by the Supreme Court (each time in 6-5 decisions), was ostensibly passed due to the involvement of Palestinian husbands of Israeli Arab women in terrorist activity. It has been attacked by the left wing in Israel and by human rights organizations as being ethnically discriminatory and violating the basic principles of human rights. Israeli Arab politicians have claimed that its real purpose is to encourage the departure of Arabs from Israel.

How is this connected to the immigration of Ethiopians to Israel?

While the media and most Israeli politicians refer to these new immigrants as “Ethiopian Jews,” for over 20 years nearly all those who have arrived from Ethiopia were not considered, from a legal standpoint, as Jews or eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. While the Ethiopians brought to Israel in the airlifts of Operation Moses in the early 1980s and Operation Solomon in 1991 were members of the Beta Israel community whom the government, relying on a halakhic ruling by former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recognized as Jews, those immigrating since 1991 have been mainly members of the Falashmura, descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity over a century ago.

Two decades of refusal

For the last 22 years every Israeli government has refused to recognize the Falashmura as Jews under the Law of the Return, despite a ruling by another chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, that they are also Jews. The reasons for refusal include early opposition from part of the Beta Israel who saw the Falashmura as hostile renegades, and the government’s concern that the lack of proper documentation of ancestry would lead to a never-ending demand for Israeli citizenship.

Despite these fears, over 35,000 Falashmura arrived in Israel over the last two decades. How did the government decide who to allow in? No law was changed, but a special category was created by cabinet decision for those “of Jewish ancestry from their mother’s side,” and if they already had relatives in Israel who filed a request for immigration on their behalf, the Interior Ministry would consider their application and grant them an entry permit. Once in Israel they had to undergo a full Orthodox conversion to Judaism before receiving full citizenship. But if they already had relatives in Israel, why could they not be allowed in on the grounds of family reunification? An official reason has never been given, but one of the underlying fears is that such a wholesale recognition of this right for one community would have made it much more difficult for the government to deny the reunification of Israeli-Palestinian families.

Even in the haphazard, topsy-turvy realm of Israeli government policy, it’s hard to find an issue on which there has been as much flip-floppery as the Falashmura. Let them in, don’t let them in, limit their number, increase their number, close down the compounds, take responsibility for every aspect of life in the compounds, every government changed course.

The latest twist in the saga will take place a month from now. There will be a big celebration at Ben-Gurion. All the top echelon of Israeli politics will be there on the tarmac as two airliners land and taxi towards them. The prime minister will probably intone the words of Jeremiah – “and thy sons shall return to their border” - and the president will reminisce about the great waves of aliyah in the early days of the state, or even harken back to his own days as a young immigrant. Four hundred Ethiopian citizens will step off the planes and upon arrival will cease to be Ethiopian citizens but instead long-lost brothers returning to the fold of the Jewish people. One of the American dignitaries will almost certainly recall the words of the late William Safire that “for the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” Everyone will congratulate everyone else for a job well done, the new immigrants will be bused off to absorption centers, banners and flags folded away and just like that organized emigration from Ethiopia will be over.

Only it won’t.

‘Screw this state’

Two weeks ago in Ethiopia, I met dozens of Falashmura turned down by the Interior Ministry, each of whom stated quite simply, “I know I’m Jewish and one day I will live in the Land of Israel.”

There are thousands of people saying that now in Ethiopia and they won’t give up. Neither will thousands of their brothers, sisters, parents and children who are Israeli citizens. The Facebook pages devoted to their struggle for family reunification are full of poignant photographs and bitter comments. “Screw this state,” writes Chekai Abono. “Instead of bringing our suffering brothers, they allow in infiltrators who harm the state. For god’s sake, where’s the justice????!” Others speak of racism against Israeli Ethiopians while complaining “they let these Sudanese and Eritreans in!”

The Law of Return is Israel’s DNA, the genetic code of a state that was originally founded for the ingathering of exiles - Holocaust survivors and refugees of the pogroms in Arab lands. A noble and just law when it was first legislated, 63 years later it is hopelessly outdated. The Law of Return has allowed on the one side hardline anti-Zionist rabbis an exclusive monopoly on acceptance to the Jewish state, and on the other opened it up to accusations of apartheid.

Whether they have sincerely returned to their Jewish roots or are simply grasping at a chance to build their lives in a developed country, the Falashmura are victims of Israel’s chronic inability to put its citizenship laws in order and define the moral and legal character of a Jewish and democratic state.