Yezvalam Aileo is standing outside the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa and watching one of the last groups of Falashmura as it leaves for the airport and the flight to Israel.
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“I don’t understand why they won’t let me go,” says the 72-year-old woman, still wearing black, in mourning for the death of her son Eveke in a work-related accident two months ago. She carries a framed picture of him around with her everywhere. “They don’t believe I am Jewish, but four of my children and 18 grandchildren live in Israel as Jews, so how can they stop me from being with them?”
All the dilemmas, controversy and resentment connected to the Falashmura saga are contained in Aileo’s story. Fifteen years ago, she arrived in Addis Ababa from Gondar with her six children, and, like other Falashmura, demanded that Israel recognize them as Jews and allow them to immigrate. Her four older children were allowed, under the Law of Return, to come to Israel with their families, while Aileo remained in Ethiopia with her two younger sons. She received assistance at the Falashmura compound until it was closed in 2004. Her second husband, Makete, was killed in a road accident that year, after which Eveke supported her, until he too was killed. Now she lives with her 22-year-old son, while her children in Israel support her with money transfers.
All the requests of her children to the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem to allow Aileo to enter Israel have been refused. She is not considered eligible according to the Law of Return, nor does she fit the criterion allowing Falashmura to emigrate − “descended from Jews on the mother’s side” − which would allow her to enter, undergo a “return to Judaism” process and become a citizen.
With the impending end of organized emigration from Ethiopia next month, the grandchildren have taken Aileo’s cause upon themselves. Amsalo Lagas, a 12th grader at the Gymnasia Ha’ivrit high school in Jerusalem, posted an open letter to Interior Minister Gideon Saar on Facebook, calling upon him to intervene on behalf of his grandmother. Lagas has been in Israel for 12 years, and represents a generation with far less patience than their parents. His resentment over the way his grandmother has been treated is clear.
“Her dream,” he says, “has been to reach Jerusalem and Zion − it’s something that our family has been living and breathing for years. And here no one cares about us; she just doesn’t count. We’re stuck in intractable bureaucratic problems. We are prepared to endanger our lives in the army, to contribute to the state, but the government won’t do the bare minimum and bring over our grandmother, our own flesh.”
“We have been trying to bring her for 15 years,” says his cousin Chen Asmamo. “I don’t understand why they can’t solve this problem. Just endless and contrary discussions, and everyone trying to show they’re right. Why can foreign workers from Sudan and Eritrea live here, but Jews, part of our people, are forbidden?”
Asmamo simply won’t accept the claim that her grandmother isn’t Jewish. “Who decides who is a Jew?” she asks angrily. “Who said you are Jewish? I can say that you are not. Who can even prove such a thing?”
Every government since the Operation Solomon airlift, in 1991, when the last of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community were brought to Israel, has changed the policy regarding the Falashmura (members of Beta Israel who converted to Christianity, under pressure), who were left behind. Now pressure to bring in more members of the community is starting again on the Netanyahu government, which decided to end this whole saga next month. Each twist and turn in policy has raised and then dashed hopes for these families. But the same laws that allowed Amsalo and Chen to come to Israel and become citizens, has also created more families that are literally split between Israel and Ethiopia. Amsalo hasn’t received an answer from the interior minister, or any of the other politicians he has written to; apparently, they are swamped with hundreds of similar requests right now.
None of the technical and logical arguments will sway him and his cousins, who feel that “the subject of Ethiopian aliyah is being forgotten in Israel.” Their parents transfer a portion of their limited income each month to help Aileo back in Addis, and they don’t understand why she can’t join them in Israel.
An official at the Jewish Agency said that, “without knowing the details of the [Aileo] case, it seems that the reason part of the family is in Israel is that her first husband was eligible for aliyah − but she, her second husband and their sons were not. Every case like this is painful and there are hundreds if not thousands of similar ones, but we cannot solve them all.”