In a move signaling the end of organized Ethiopian immigration to Israel, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky turned over the keys to the Jewish school of Gondar to the Ethiopian city’s mayor.
Monday’s handover ceremony of the school, which was funded and maintained by the Jewish Agency, came as the final flight of Ethiopian immigrants prepared to leave for Israel.
Some 2,500 Ethiopian children awaiting immigration to Israel studied in the school. The agency donated all the school buildings and equipment to the municipality of Gondar.
“Jews lived in Gondar for 2,500 years; however, their longing to return home never weakened,” Sharansky said at the ceremony. “Today we bring to an end a journey that spans thousands of years — the conclusion of Operation Wings of a Dove.”
Operation Wings of a Dove was launched in November 2010 when the Israeli government decided to check the aliya eligibility of an additional 8,000 Ethiopians.
The petitioners are known as Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago but now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. They have been accepted to Israel under different rules than those governing other immigrants.
A steady trickle of approximately 200 Ethiopian immigrants per month has been coming to Israel since 2010.
A final flight of 400 Ethiopian immigrants is set to arrive in Israel on August 28. Nearly 7,000 immigrants from Ethiopia, the majority of whom are Falash Mura, have immigrated to Israel since 2010.
The Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia, Asher Seyum, announced earlier in the year that the agency would hand over its aid compounds in Gondar to local authorities at the end of August.
For years the compounds — originally established by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and only recently taken over by the Jewish Agency — provided thousands of Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel with educational, nutritional and some employment services.
After next week’s final flight, Ethiopians wishing to immigrate to Israel will be subject to the same rules as potential immigrants from elsewhere in the world and considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Israeli government has declared an official end to mass Ethiopian immigration several times. Each time, however, aliya from Ethiopia resumed after pressure by advocates.
In August 2008, for example, the government declared mass Ethiopian immigration over only to reverse course several months later and agree to check the aliya eligibility of 3,000 additional Ethiopians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in May 2009 that those would be the last Ethiopians to be checked en masse, but that decision was reversed in 2010, opening the door for this latest group of immigrants.
Calling the decision to end Ethiopian aliya “sensitive and complex,” Seyum, the Jewish Agency emissary, acknowledged pressure from the Ethiopian community in Israel for the aliya to continue but said he was bound by the government’s decision to end it.
Israel is home to some 120,000 Ethiopian-born Jews or their descendants, most of whom came during two major immigration operations — Operation Moses in 1984, and Operation Solomon in 1991.
Earlier this summer, Israel’s first Ethiopian-born beauty queen, Yityish Titi Aynaw, made an emotional return trip to her native homeland, to accompany extended members of her family on their aliya journey to Israel.
Aynaw, 21, from Netanya, was chosen Miss Israel 2013 in February. She had left Ethiopia with members of her immediate family at age 10.