Opinion

13 Years in Israel Without Two of My Sisters

The Jewish people whose country this is mustn’t forget that it’s also the country of the approximately 8,000 Jews left behind in Ethiopia

Zemenech Bililin, right, and her mother.

I immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a 6-year-old girl. Today I serve in the army as a combat soldier in the Lavi Battalion in the Jordan Valley, but my two big sisters are still in Addis Ababa and I haven’t seen them in 13 years.

When we made aliyah, the Interior Ministry promised that my sisters would join us within a few weeks. Thirteen years have passed and they’re still not here, and I’m still waiting for the ministry to keep its promises.

This is what goes on here in Israel, the land my sisters so desperately dream of, to be reunited with their family. The 13 years have been filled with pain and longing. My mother and father are depressed because they haven’t seen their daughters for so long, or their grandchildren as they grow up. And this has been accompanied by endless attempts to bring my sisters and their families to Israel.

As hard as military service is, I still find time to help the family with the fight to bring my sisters to Israel. We’re fighting all the time, in every way we can think of: posting on social media, writing newspaper articles, contacting MKs and going to Knesset committees and the Interior Ministry.

At one committee hearing a few months ago, my brother and I attended as proud soldiers in our army uniforms. I addressed the MKs and the representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office and Interior Ministry on behalf of my sisters and all Jews who have been forgotten and left behind. When I stood up to speak and told about how we came on aliyah while my sisters were left in Ethiopia, my mother stood behind me and couldn’t stop crying.

In letters and in my thoughts I promise my sisters that they’re just as important. I feel my sisters’ pain and their endless yearning for their family in Israel. It’s especially hard because I know they’re living in harsh conditions and suffering harassment for being Jewish. I promise that I’ll do everything until they can make aliyah and we’ll all be a whole family once again.

I want to ask the people in the Israeli government: How can you tear families apart? How can you separate brothers and sisters? Parents and daughters?

I find myself fighting on two fronts. As an Israeli soldier, I guard the country’s borders, and at home I fight to bring my sisters to Israel. These have been 13 years since I’ve been able to hug my sisters, 13 years in which I haven’t been able to see my nieces and nephews. And each time I go home on leave it breaks my heart to see my parents’ anguish.

It has been 13 years of trying to fight the system, of getting the runaround from one official to another with no solution in sight. Thirteen years of trying to stay strong and not lose hope. Israel in 2018 is the country of all Jews everywhere, not just some of them. It’s a democratic country that stands for equality, justice, peace and love of the land, and I know that it invests in defending its citizens. But somehow limits are still placed on aliyah.

We Jews who fought to have a country of our own, a country where we could defend ourselves and live together as a nation, are now putting restrictions on our brothers and sisters and preventing them from immigrating to Israel, which is just as much theirs as ours.

I am hurt by my country. The place where I was taught to be accepting of others and give of myself knows only how to take from me. The place where I learned to lend a helping hand only wants to set me apart and abandon my sisters in a land that isn’t theirs.

The Jewish people whose country this is mustn’t forget that it’s also the country of the approximately 8,000 Jews still in Ethiopia. They yearn to make aliyah, but the government is hindering them. I want to ask Interior Minister Arye Dery – where are you? What are you doing to put an end to this rift? To the pain of the divided families? Where is the humanity? Where is the concern from each and every Jew? How can 8,000 Jews be left languishing for years and Israeli governments not care?

As interior minister, Dery is the one who decides who can make aliyah and who cannot. I have something to ask of him: Stop for a moment and try to put yourself in our place. Find the humanity inside you and fight for every child as if he or she were your child who was left behind.

Until that happens, we Ethiopian Israelis and all Israelis who recognize our suffering and longing will keep on demonstrating, and together we’ll make the world a better place.

Zemenech Bililin is an activist for the aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry.