Early Tuesday an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 will land at Ben-Gurion International Airport, to much fanfare. On it will be 43 Ethiopian citizens for whom the government has moved mountains to bring to Israel. We don’t know their names or anything else about them, apart for the fact that they are Falashmura, and that Benjamin Netanyahu has made it an utmost priority to bring them here before the election.
At the ceremony welcoming them to their new homeland, you can be sure the bleary-eyed arrivals will be greeted over and over as “returning brothers,” while cynical journalists such as myself will sneer that it’s all a gimmick to help Netanyahu try to regain votes from the Ethiopian-Israeli community that Likud lost in the 2019 elections.
The irony will be that despite describing them as new olim and Jews returning to the fold, the government that did so much to bring them here will not grant them full citizenship and the right to vote in the March 2 election.
Despite having waited for years in a transit camp in Gondar, in northern Ethiopia, uncertain if they’d ever get the chance to emigrate to Israel, and having to jump through countless bureaucratic hoops to prove their Jewish ancestry, once they’re here they will not get a blue Israeli ID, like all other immigrants. Instead, they will receive a gray resident’s booklet and commit to undergoing a two-year conversion process to Judaism before they receive citizenship.
Will the 43 newcomers just be relieved to have finally made it or are they aware that they’ve been brought here merely as props for Netanyahu’s election campaign? All they know is that suddenly, last week, they were informed they would be on their way within a week and the medical examinations which are usually carried out over weeks were rushed ahead. On Sunday morning, they will board a bus for the 14-hour trip to Addis Ababa where, for the first time in their lives, they will board a plane.
The emigration of Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry has come a long way since William Safire wrote in The New York Times 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.”
That was back in 1985, when Operation Moses, the secret airlift of members of Beta Israel on Israel Air Force transports landing in the Sudanese desert was revealed.
In May 1991, the last of the Beta Israel still living in Ethiopia, all 14,325 of them, were airlifted from Addis Ababa in 36 hours. The breathtakingly successful execution of Operation Solomon was allowed to obscure the fact that it was carried out on false pretenses.
The Mengistu regime had just fallen but that didn’t mean the Beta Israel faced imminent danger, as some Jewish American activists fear-mongered. No one addressed the question whether Israel was prepared to take care of so many people suddenly dislocated from their rural surroundings and to assist in their acclimation to a very different new environment.
The next few decades – in which the Ethiopian Israeli community faced discrimination, unemployment, over-policing, a Chief Rabbinate that refused to recognize them as Jews and a health system that discarded their blood donations and administered long-acting contraceptives to women in the community – are proof at the very least that Israel was prepared to do a whole lot to bring them here, but not so much to help them integrate into Israeli society. And then there were the Falashmura.
As soon as the Beta Israel community were all here, there began a clamor, supported once again by Jewish American lobbyists, to allow also the Falashmura, another community claiming to have Jewish roots but whose members had mainly converted to Christianity generations ago, to come as well.
The plight of the Falashmura divided the Beta Israel. Some saw them as renegades who had been hostile to them back in Ethiopia. For others, they were close relatives, sometimes even siblings and parents, they had every right to be united with in the homeland. But no one was asking Ethiopian Israelis anyway.
Every Israeli government in the past three decades has behaved consistently toward the Falashmura, with a sequence of three alternating policies. One: Don’t let any Falashmura come. Two: Set criteria and make a list of those eligible to come. Three: Bring all those on the list – and return to the first policy.
Netanyahu’s governments over the past 11 years went through two drawn-out cycles of these policies. Back in 2013, the “last group” of Falashmura arrived (the previous “last group” came in 2009). Ever since, the pressure has been on to reopen the gates. In 2018, Netanyahu relented, and a new set of criteria was prepared for a projected 8,000 Falashmura. Except he was in no rush to actually implement the process, and only a handful have arrived.
Suddenly, three weeks ago, he decided that bringing a large group of Falashmura just before the election was exactly what was needed to boost Likud votes from the Ethiopian Israeli community.
Netanyahu demanded 400 be brought immediately, like a delivery from AliExpress, screaming in a cabinet meeting at officials who tried to explain that the process of examining eligibility and carrying out vaccinations could not possibly be suddenly expedited at that rate. In the end, he was forced to make do with 43.
It’s not like there’s anything new about Netanyahu’s cynicism or his casual racism. It was on display this week, when in an interview with an Arabic-language television station he dismissed the idea of tens of thousands of Arab-Israeli citizens in the so-called Little Triangle being forced to become citizens of a future Palestinian state. It was his office that had insisted on the idea being included in the Trump plan in the first place. But now that he’s worried about a surge of Arab citizens voting for the Joint List on March 2, it’s no longer so convenient.
I hope the 43 new immigrants arriving in Israel Tuesday morning, once they’ve been exploited in Netanyahu’s flailing battle for survival, overcome the many obstacles to full integration as equal citizens. No matter the controversy over the circumstances of their arrival, once they’re here they deserve every bit of support. May they also be the last victims of Netanyahu’s callous, cynical administration.
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