With jubilant ululations, tears, and strains of Am Yisrael Chai, Ethiopian Israelis welcomed family members to Israel after a three-year freeze on immigration from Ethiopia. The 63 immigrants that arrived on Sunday night were the first to arrive from the country since the government announced the “end” of Ethiopian immigration in August 2013, angering Ethiopian Israelis who still had family in Gondar and Addis Ababa.
“I feel like today the Berlin wall is falling,” said Ethiopian-born MK Avraham Neguise, who worked with fellow Likud MK David Amsalem and activists to restart Ethiopian immigration, including boycotting the coalition for months. “What’s important is it’s a symbol to open the door for thousands to unite with their families. My joy will be greatest when all of the families are reunited,” he added.
“It still feels like a dream, I just can’t believe it, it’s like happiness without end,” said M., who welcomed her brother and his family. She hadn’t seen her brother in nine years, and was meeting her niece and nephew for the first time. “It’s hard, when every other Jew can come here, to want something and you can’t get it,” she said. “They feel so isolated and lonely there. Sometimes they give them hope [that they will be allowed to immigrate] and then they take it away.”
There were supposed to be 64 immigrants arriving, but a baby died last week in Addis Ababa while awaiting the final approval.
Neguise also denounced the government’s reluctance to bring the Ethiopian Jews, requiring a years-long struggle.
“No other Jewish community is struggling and fighting for immigration,” he said. “You don’t see this with French, Russian, or American Jews, only with the Ethiopian immigrants. It’s just about which immigrants are cheaper. It’s very difficult to understand. Israel is a home for each and every Jew. I’m sure if these immigrants were engineers, doctors, professors, or even soccer players, they would have brought them years ago.”
Ethiopian immigrants get additional benefits not afforded to other immigrants, including housing allowances for at least two years in an absorption center and a NIS 400,000 ($105,000) grant to buy an apartment.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky denied Neguise’s claim of racism against Ethiopians, and said that the government’s decision to bring them to Israel despite the fact that they are not considered Jewish under the Law of Return illustrated Israel’s commitment to them. “This so-called ‘Law of Entrance’ is not for Russians or anyone else, it’s done especially for Ethiopians,” Sharansky said.
Sharansky added that during the first major operation to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1985 he was still in the Soviet Union and heard about it on the news. He was the first interior minister to visit the Jewish camps in Gondar, and flew to Israel with Ethiopian immigrants in the 1990s. “I am always excited when I see a new immigrant coming full circle,” he said.
“The first few years will be hard,” Amsalem, the Likud MK, told the immigrants during an official welcoming ceremony. “But whenever you feel bad, look around you, and every Israeli you see, either him, his father, or his grandfather was probably also an immigrant.”
The ceremony was held inside the airport, meaning almost all of the Israeli families were barred from attending. Excited families clutching balloons and bouquets of flowers were brusquely turned away from the security check outside the ceremony. They were forced to wait almost four hours at Terminal 3 for their families to complete their paperwork and collect their luggage before they could see them for the first time.
Over the past three years, activists with the Struggle for Jews in Ethiopia have labored to bring their family members to Israel.
“We’re happy that this is finally happening, but there’s a small tear in our hearts because our family members still aren’t here,” said Asras Damalash, a 23-year-old soldier who is active in the organization and has two sisters in Ethiopia. She said the political situation in the country, which has seen the worst anti-government protests in years, has them worried. One member of the Jewish community in Gondar was killed in the riots last week. “We are trying to give them hope that they’re going to make aliyah, that’s what keeps them going,” said Damalash.
There are approximately 9,000 Jews still living in Ethiopia who could not previously come to Israel because they are not considered Jewish under the Law of Return. A government plan to bring the 9,000 Jews to Israel was approved in November 2015 but was not implemented because there was no budget for the program.
The 2017 to 2018 budget includes money for the absorption of 1,300 Ethiopian immigrants.