Why Isn't Netanyahu Willing to Bring All the Ethiopian Jews to Israel?

Last month's cabinet resolution to bring 1,000 out of the 8,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar shows just how difficult it is for Israel to absorb black Jews

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Ethiopian Jews hold pictures of their relatives in Israel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 28, 2018.
Ethiopian Jews hold pictures of their relatives in Israel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 28, 2018.Credit: Mulugeta Ayene/AP
Kassahun Shiferaw
Kassahun Shiferaw

“Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and to the ingathering of the exiles.” This quote, from the Declaration of Independence, apparently isn’t relevant to the Jews of Ethiopia; since the 1980s their aliyah has been the subject of political-rabbinic horse trading.

Last month’s cabinet resolution to bring 1,000 of the Ethiopian Jews still waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar undermines a 2015 cabinet resolution calling for bringing to Israel all the remaining Ethiopian Jews — 8,000 people. Why has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu neglected his promises and is bringing only 1,000? Why leave 7,000 behind? The new resolution shows demonstrates just how difficult it is for Israel to absorb black Jews.

The Jews in Ethiopia have been waiting for many years. They are on Interior Ministry lists and their families live in Israel. But the latest resolution says only parents whose children are already in Israel can immigrate, and only with their single children. Parents who have been waiting to immigrate for years will have to leave behind their married children and grandchildren. Who will they choose? The children in Israel or those in Ethiopia?

>> Opinion | Netanyahu has a promise to keep

A tweet by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reading: "I have decided to allow 1,000 Ethiopian Jews who already have family in Israel to immigrate." September 17, 2018.

Why? “Because.” There’s no logic to it; that’s what was decided and that’s that. During other waves of aliyah from Ethiopia the situation was similar; the door was never truly open to us. We lost some 4,000 Jews in the camps in Sudan as a result of the long wait after the arduous journey from Ethiopia. On the synagogue wall in the community of those waiting in Addis Ababa is a curtain embroidered with the names of hundreds of Jews who died before reaching Israel. Some 3,000 died there waiting. They fill the Jewish cemeteries in Addis and Gondar.

I have recently heard people who, out of ignorance or baseless hatred, claim to be “concerned for Israel.” In other words, black people are an existential danger to the state. Another claim by those opposed to aliyah from Ethiopia is “they aren’t Jews” — this too, of course, out of concern for the state. Others say, “This immigration will never end.” Has anyone ever said this about immigrants from France or the United States?

Until 2013, only those who had Jewish maternal lineage were brought from Ethiopia. In the Jewish communities there were still thousands of people of Jewish descent only on the father’s side, who left their villages and returned to Judaism years ago, but Israel did not approve their immigration. In 2015 the government decided to redress this injustice and to bring those who remained. These people did not suddenly appear; some have been on waiting lists since 1999, and nearly all of their families already live in Israel.

Those who really want to study the issue can board a plane and land in Ethiopia within four hours. In Gondar and Addis, they will meet amazing Jewish communities. Communities that sent Sintayehu Shaparou, to this year’s International Bible Quiz, where he won second place.

Read the op-ed by Reuven Wabashat, the chief rabbi of Israel’s Ethiopian community, written in October 2017, after a visit. “All are waiting to make aliyah from Addis Ababa and Gondar, and they are members of communities where Jewish life is conducted properly, with synagogues, mikvehs, Shabbat and holiday observance, and classes in Judaism and Hebrew,” he wrote. “They left their villages many years ago (10 to 25 years). ... There is a need to expedite to the degree possible the aliyah of those waiting to immigrate in Gondar and Addis Ababa.”

Rabbi Yosef Hadane, his predecessor in the post, called for them to be brought immediately. This was also demanded by dozens of kessim, Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders.

Instead of implementing its resolution of three years ago, the cabinet is busy setting up committees, drafting legal discrimination documents, giving briefings to journalists and inciting against Ethiopian Jews in Israel and in Ethiopia. Instead of acting to eliminate discrimination, they give it bureaucratic approval, by restricting the pace of aliyah and adding more suffering to those families torn between Israel and Ethiopia.

Kassahun Shiferaw is a social activist and a field coordinator for the Task Force for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry.

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