After nearly 30 years, aliya from Ethiopia came to a formal close Wednesday, with two final charter flights containing 450 Falash Mura landing at Ben Gurion Airport in the late afternoon.
The group was brought to Israel as the concluding part of Operation Dove’s Wings, which began three years ago when the government decided to airlift the last of the eligible Falash Mura, some 7,500 individuals, to Israel.
Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries largely due to persecution and economic woes but who maintained a distinct communal identity.
The end of the Falash Mura aliya from Ethiopia has been plagued by ongoing strife surrounding the group’s limited immigration to Israel and those left behind; with some questioning the group’s connections to Judaism and others arguing that Israel should have taken more of them in.
The arrival of the group in Israel was clouded by criticism from Falash Mura immigrants already in Israel who claimed many of their relatives were stranded in Ethiopia, charging the government with abandoning them and calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider allowing them to make aliya. Hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis protested outside Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem Wednesday ahead of the scheduled landing of the flights.
Some 12,000 members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia, centered in and around the city of Gondar in the north of the country, have not been granted permission by the Interior Ministry to make aliya.
Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman urged the government to reconsider. “I welcome the new Immigrants arriving today. However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters of Ethiopians who are already in Israel who are being left behind. And, we won’t leave them behind,” he said. “I visited Gondar last year and met them. I saw their tears, I heard their cries, and I was inspired by their drive to move to Israel and be reunited with their loved ones. I call on the government and the Jewish Agency to keep all services in Gondar in place until every single relative of Israelis has their appeal heard by the special committee set up by the Interior Committee and commit not to rest until I know that no families remain torn apart.”
Hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis greeted the flights of Falash Mura at the airport.
The Jewish Agency was tasked by the government with preparing the community for life in Israel. The Jewish Agency ran a range of educational and social services, including a school, synagogue, and community center in Gondar, where it also provided hot meals for pregnant and nursing women and children up to age 6, and ran sustenance programs through which it distributed thousands of dollars’ worth of grains to families slated to make aliya.
Together with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency also helped members of the community ease into their lives in Israel, in part by placing the Falash Mura families in 17 absorption centers scattered throughout the country.
A symbol of the winding down of the Jewish Agency’s operations in Gondar came last week, when the agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, turned over the keys to the Jewish school of Gondar to the Ethiopian city’s mayor. A ceremony at the school came as the final flight of Ethiopian immigrants prepared to leave for Israel.
“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 Dove’s Wings.”