Each time an Israeli government tried over the last two decades to end the emigration of Falashmura, it was faced with a coalition of Jewish-American lobbyists, rabbis, Shas and national-religious politicians, and veteran activists from the Israeli-Ethiopian community itself − all demanding to keep the process going. This alliance usually had wide backing from the Israeli media, whose reporters were rarely aware of the difference between the original Beta Israel community and the Falashmura. Members of the former had clung to their Jewish traditions and emigrated to Israel in the early 1980s, during Operation Moses, after marching hundreds of kilometers from their villages to camps in Sudan (many of them dying or disappearing on the way), or in the 1991 Operation Solomon airlift. The Falashmura, on the other hand, were descendants of converts to Christianity who desired to greatly improve their standard of living by emigrating.
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Few Israeli politicians were prepared to openly oppose this popular campaign, and the voices of professionals in the Jewish Agency and government who warned that Israel was importing a “social time-bomb” and that the new immigrants had no connection to the Jewish people, went unheeded. Nor did the deep divisions among Israeli-Ethiopians themselves − some of whom were against allowing the Falashmura, whom they considered as hostile, to enter − surface in public.
There is no question today that the Falashmura supporters won the struggle, succeeding not only in changing the policies of successive governments but also in totally blurring any distinction in the broader public’s mind between the two groups, Falashmura and Beta Israel. Now, a new struggle is beginning, as organized emigration reaches its “official” end later this month, leaving behind more than 1,900 Falashmura whose requests were turned down and thousands more who were not on the original 2010 list that formed the basis for the last stage.
This time, however, the veteran campaigners are less involved. For their part, American Jews are more wary of intervening in Israeli politics. Shas is in the opposition, and since it never received an electoral dividend for its efforts on the Ethiopians’ behalf, it seems less interested on fighting on behalf of their cause (former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who ruled the Falashmura are Jews, is now estranged from the Shas leadership), and the community’s leadership is slowly making way for a new generation.
The younger generation of Israeli-Ethiopians, some born in Israel, know Ethiopia mainly from stories and from visiting the country as tourists, mainly on post-military service backpacking trips. Unlike their parents who were usually passive, allowing others to fight their battles − this generation insists on fighting for itself. This applies to their struggle against discrimination and for better opportunities in this country and the battle against what they see as the discriminatory policy of the government that is ending emigration from Ethiopia.
Many of these young men and women, who are still at an early organizational stage and waging their campaign mainly on Facebook, have relatives still living in Ethiopia who have been barred from emigrating, and they present their photographs and stories online. Three weeks ago, some of them attended a special session of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, trying to have their voices heard. Their main goal now is to prevent the Jewish Agency from closing down the synagogue, community center and school that serve the Falashmura community in Gondar.
For now, these young Israeli-Ethiopians are the only ones with a strong interest in continuing aliyah from Ethiopia, while the government and Jewish Agency are determined to end it. The success of the younger people will hinge on their ability to transform their personal and family struggle into a national campaign. And it will be a trial for the place they have achieved in Israeli society.
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