Asras Damalash had never blocked an intersection before. But you would never guess by the way she zipped back and forth inside a circle of enraged young protesters, all chanting “Where’s mom? Where’s dad? We are not second-class citizens.”
The two older sisters of this bespectacled 25-year-old from Haifa have been trying to immigrate to Israel for 20 years – the majority of Damalash’s lifetime. Like the other 1,000 Ethiopian Israelis protesting outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem office under the beating July sun, she was demanding that Benjamin Netanyahu make good on his promise to bring the remainder of Ethiopia’s Falashmura community to Israel.
Demonstrators hoped the government would hear their protest, but feared another partial commitment that would again leave thousands in limbo due to a dysfunctional immigration process.
On Sunday, the cabinet delivered on both – approving a plan to absorb some 1,000 of the approximately 8,000 Falashmura still living in Ethiopia. The Falashmura are descendents of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, often under duress, centuries ago, and identify as Jews.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon called the move a “just” decision. “The Declaration of Independence states that the State of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles. There are no budgetary, bureaucratic or political considerations when it comes to aliyah,” he said on Israeli radio.
However, community leaders expressed dismay at the news. Activists see the immigration impasse as camouflaged racism, and say feelings of resignation and anger over the decision will inevitably translate into more protests – like those that took place over the summer and helped lead to Sunday’s decision.
“We are happy that an end is being put to the suffering of 1,000 members of the Ethiopian-Jewish community. But we are far from satisfied with this partial implementation of a decision,” said Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah spokesperson Alisa Bodner.
“The government is playing with lives by arbitrarily deciding, without explanation, to bring just 1,000 of the 8,000 members of the remaining Jewish community to Israel,” she said.
‘We’ve been waiting 30 years’
In 2015, the Israeli cabinet unanimously agreed to bring the remaining 9,000 Falashmura to Israel by 2020, but did not address the issue of financing it. A year later the government walked back that commitment, citing budgetary concerns. In 2017, it approved the immigration of 1,300 Falashmura who already had family members in Israel, and on Sunday approved a further 1,000 in similar circumstances.
The plan to absorb the remainder had been thrown into doubt in March when no funds were allocated for Ethiopian immigration in the 2019 state budget. With the latest decision, the remaining 7,000 will continue waiting, hoping for a new quota.
There are approximately 144,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent in Israel today, many of whom were airlifted to Israel in clandestine operations in the 1980s and ’90s. According to government data, some 40 percent of the community today was born in Israel. Most of these are recognized as Jewish by the state, belonging to Beta Israel – the Jewish community that is believed to have existed in Ethiopia for over 1,500 years.
Although a number have risen to enjoy economic success and reports show waning inequity gaps, many Ethiopian Israelis complain of discrimination, lack of opportunity, endemic poverty and police harassment. According to Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2017, Ethiopian households earn 30 percent less than the average Israeli household.
And a report by the Association for Ethiopian Jews found that only 34 percent of students of Ethiopian descent met the requirements necessary to enroll in university, compared to 60 percent among non-Ethiopian Jewish students in the 2015-2016 academic year.
Israel considered Ethiopian immigration complete in the ’90s, only to learn that thousands of immigrants had left parents, children, spouses and siblings behind. The majority of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia say they have first-degree relatives living in Israel.
The Falashmura aren’t considered eligible for immigration under the Law of Return because of their ancestors’ conversion to Christianity, mainly in the 19th century. However, after years of pressure, Israel finally recognized the community with two groundbreaking cabinet decisions in 2003 and 2010 – with the caveat that an individual had to prove Jewish lineage on their maternal side and then undergo a conversion process upon arrival in Israel.
The Falashmura live in devout Jewish communities in Gondar and Addis Ababa, cities they moved to en masse 20 years ago anticipating the planes that would take them to Israel. Baye Tessa Nalenye, 33, works as the synagogue hazan (song leader) in Addis. He traces his roots to Beta Israel through his father’s side and believes the name Falashmura – indicative of their status as converts in Hebrew – is unfounded.
“In truth,” Tessa Nalenye tells Haaretz over the phone from Addis Ababa, “every Jew outside Israel has been forced to change to another religion before – even during the Holocaust. Yet no one is called ‘Falashmura’ except for us,” he says.
He remains adamant that the remaining 7,000 will somehow immigrate to Israel. “We have been waiting here for 30 years to make aliyah. People say we want to come to Israel to improve our lives, but the truth is we left everything, all of our land, to wait here,” he says. “Some have died, but we will never give up.”
Tessa Nalenye says a handful of community members have threatened to go on hunger strike, and that two boys even tried to reach Israel by foot earlier this year. They soon returned, fearing for their lives. “Youngsters born in Addis Ababa have lived their whole lives waiting,” he says, adding: “We know how dangerous and difficult that is, but there is despair here.”
Past estimates of the cost to transport the remaining members to Israel and provide absorption services have been reported at approximately 1.4 billion shekels (about $390 million). But critics fear that full approval would prompt tens of thousands more Ethiopians to claim eligibility for immigration to Israel.
‘Main issue here is racism’
According to Israeli media reports, MK Bezalel Smotrich (from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party) wrote to Netanyahu that the 1,000 new immigrants “will open the door to an endless extension of a family chain from all over the world. How can the state explain in the High Court the distinction between Falashmura and the rest of the world?” he asked.
But community leaders dispute this. They say eligibility criteria are too strict for thousands more to make such claims and, besides, the list to make aliyah from Ethiopia has been closed since the early 2000s.
Leading Ethiopian-Israeli community activist Avi Yalou finds reasons for both joy and despair in the latest cabinet decision. “They give no reason for this number. When you see the government’s actions, you understand that nobody wants the Ethiopian community coming to Israel. It makes us so angry,” he told Haaretz.
“The main issue here is the racism, not the budget or our Jewishness. But we see that our protests help, and if we want to make a big change we must do something radical. If you keep silent, the government is silent.”
In 2015, violent Ethiopian-Israeli protests erupted after video emerged of a policeman beating a uniformed Israel Defense Forces soldier of Ethiopian descent. Some protesters invoked Black Lives Matter and made parallels to police brutality against black men in the United States.
In August, MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud) – currently Israel’s only Ethiopian-born lawmaker – pointed to a double standard regarding Ethiopian immigration ahead of the government’s decision.
“You don’t see any [other] community in Israel that holds photos of their mothers, sons and daughters in front of the government and says ‘Please bring my family,’” Nagosa told Haaretz. “You don’t see this from Russian, French, any other Jewish immigrants. Only we have this problem.”
Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah spokeswoman Bodner said the Falashmura community in Ethiopia now appears more desperate in its threats to begin hunger strikes or to make the journey to Israel by foot. “I hope they won’t have to resort to these measures, but they’ve been waiting for 20 years, separated from their loved ones after getting these promises from the government.”
Bodner also sees increasing anger among the Ethiopian-Israel community this year. Young activists started blocking roads and protesting outside the home of Interior Minister Arye Dery in March, after Ethiopian immigration was excluded from the 2019 state budget. And there was a public outcry in June when leading Israeli winery Barkan removed Ethiopian-Israeli workers from its production line, after kashrut supervision employees questioned their Jewishness. The winery eventually reinstated the workers, after Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi labeled the move “pure racism.”
Back in July, her voice raspy from yelling, Asras Damalash said she thought young Ethiopian Israelis who grew up in Israel are wiser to issues of race and inequality, and have become bolder in challenging them. While her grandmother struggled to learn Hebrew and integrate into the workplace without a modern education, Asras graduated at the top of her class, served four years in an IDF combat unit and aspires to be a politician.
“The older generation, they want the basics, their loved ones – I want my sisters too. But they won’t say that their salaries are low, or the health care is bad, or they were treated disrespectfully. We feel like we deserve more. We don’t have another country.”