'One Day We Will Reach Eretz Israel': The Never-ending Saga for Ethiopian Jews

Every time immigration from Ethiopia seems to have reached an end in recent years, pressure from various quarters - both here and abroad - has reignited the whole process.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In four weeks’ time, on August 28, a grand ceremony is scheduled to take place at Ben-Gurion International Airport: The prime minister, president, chief rabbis, leaders of American Jewry and others will line up to greet “the last remnants of Ethiopian Jewry.” Two charter flights from Addis Ababa carrying the 400 remaining members of the Falashmura community who received permission to emigrate will land, and the ongoing efforts of three decades to bring over the Beta Israel community, at first, and subsequently the Falashmura, will be over.

But there has never been a tidy end to previous chapters of this whole saga, and there almost certainly won’t be one this time either. Four years ago, the Jewish Agency had ostensibly finished bringing over every last immigrant on the authorized list and closed its offices in Ethiopia, only for some of its people to be sent back two years later, when the government changed, and it decided to examine the cases of a new list of 8,200 Falashmura. Now an identical point has been reached: 6,300 of those on that list have been recognized as eligible, and by next month all will be in Israel. Operation Wings of a Dove is nearly over, and this time a clear message to those remaining behind is being sent that the door will not reopen.

The welfare and education programs for the Falashmura in the northern town of Gondar − which were originally operated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry ‏(NACOEJ‏), and which, for the last two-and-a-half years, were run by the Jewish Agency − are to be terminated next month. Around 150 local employees, many of them Falashmura who were themselves not recognized as eligible for aliyah have received notice.

“It’s very important that we not create any illusions,” says the head of the Agency in Ethiopia, Asher Siyum. “We helped all those who were supposed eventually to reach Israel, and now our mission is over.”

But no matter what the Agency does, the Falashmura in Gondar have not lost hope that “we will one day reach Eretz Israel.” As many say, “It is all up to God.” And, despite their determination to finish the process, the government and the Agency are still keeping a few options open.

The Interior Ministry announced three weeks ago that it was setting up an appeals committee that would reexamine the status of “extraordinary” cases that were turned down. The Agency is leaving its office in Gondar open for now, with a skeleton staff, ostensibly to serve the trickle of Ethiopian immigrants who are eligible, unlike the Falashmura, under the Law of Return to continue to make aliyah.

The Joint Distribution Committee ‏(JDC‏), an international Jewish humanitarian organization, also has to decide when it will close down its clinic in Gondar. “The clinic serves those who are about to emigrate to Israel, and there is no reason to keep operating if there is no emigration,” says a senior JDC official. “But we have seen so many changes in Israeli government policy over the years that we are not in a hurry to close the clinic.”

The inconsistency in government policy vis-a-vis the Falashmura − descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity starting at the end of the 1800s, and who have been trying to return to the Jewish people for the last couple of decades − began during Operation Solomon in May 1991. At that time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided not to allow Falashmura on to the airlift, even though thousands of them had arrived in Addis Ababa alongside their Beta Israel “cousins.” In some cases, they were physically prevented from boarding the planes.

But after the successful conclusion of the operation that brought 14,310 people to Israel in 25 hours, the pressure increased: American-Jewish leaders and philanthropists joined with local rabbis, mainly of the national-religious right wing or politicians from Shas, all claiming that the Falashmura were Jews who must be allowed to come to Israel immediately. ‏(Their Jewishness, however, was not sufficient for the rabbis to forgo the demand that they undergo full conversion after arrival here‏). They were joined by part of the Ethiopian community already living in Israel, many of whom had Falashmura relations. The pressure did the work, and the governments, each in its turn, authorized new lists and quotas of Falashmura immigrants.

In July 2008, the entire number authorized four years earlier by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had arrived in Israel, and again the aliyah operation in Ethiopia was shut down. However, this was merely the starting point for another, better organized campaign. Prominent figures were enlisted, such as former Supreme Court President Judge Meir Shamgar, who became president of the Committee for Saving the Remnant of Ethiopian Jews, while from North America came the two Jewish legal stars Alan Dershowitz and Irving Cotler. The Olmert government refused to change its policy.

Among the steadfast opponents to more emigration were Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but a more amenable government was just around the corner: Benjamin Netanyahu was more open to persuasion ‏(or prone to pressure‏), and in November 2010, his government agreed to examine the new list prepared by NACOEJ and restart immigration for those who met the criteria set by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

“It isn’t over,” says a senior official in the Jewish Agency. “We are wrapping up the operation, but the pressure will continue and the government will have to decide yet again. Going by past experience, they will cave in and we will be back in Ethiopia again, where we started.”

Click here for Haaretz's Ethiopian Exodus Project.

Immigrants arriving in Israel. Credit: Moshik Brin
Falashmura exodus.
Ethiopian immigration to Israel.Credit: Haaretz

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