Surrounded by Israeli flags and dozens of balloons, more than 200 families and supporters gathered at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday night to welcome 72 new Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, the first group to immigrate since the government “resumed” Ethiopian immigration last October.
When the new immigrants emerged into the airport’s arrival hall, a huge cheer went through the crowd, which rushed forward to embrace family members they hadn’t seen in over a decade.
Youth group members formed a welcoming line, chanting, “We won’t be afraid, even if the road is long.”
“We’re not angry but we were worried, we were very worried,” said Adisu Berhanu, who was waiting for his 13-year-old niece, whom he had last seen before he moved to Israel when she was a year old. “But here, today, the worries are behind us. There’s always hope, we hope everyone will be able to make aliyah.”
There are approximately 9,000 Jews in Ethiopia with family in Israel who are waiting to emigrate.
In August 2016, a year after the government first announced it would bring those still awaiting immigration, the Finance Ministry agreed to allocate money to allow 1,300 Ethiopians to come, the first step of a five-year program to bring 6,000 new immigrants at a rate of approximately 100 per month.
Although a celebratory flight landed at Ben Gurion International Airport in October with 63 Ethiopians who had already received their approval to immigrate, this was the first plane to arrive since then. The process for immigration approval has been plagued by accusations of racism and inefficiency against the Interior Ministry.
Family members said they hoped Tuesday’s flight would signify a turning point. There are two additional flights planned for June, including one next week with almost 100 people, according to International Christian Embassy Jerusalem spokesman David Parsons. ICEJ is sponsoring the first year of flights for the Ethiopian immigrants.
“They were projecting 1,300 in the first year, but there was a six-month delay, so they need to catch up a little,” said Parsons. “But today you can really feel the joy and excitement of families reuniting after a long time of separation.”
Parsons said that African Christians have been especially passionate about donating to ICEJ to pay for the flights of Ethiopian Jews, including a group of Tanzanian Christians who paid for the flights of an entire family of eight people.
Other people were less optimistic, including many of the activists who are part of the Struggle for Ethiopian Jewry. “The Israeli public is so apathetic,” said Moges Siyum, one activist. “How is it that just us alone are fighting to bring these Jews home? They are a symbol of all of the Jewish people.”
More than 50 members of youth groups waited with homemade signs and small flags, including Bnei Akiva and Fighters for Hope, an organization that runs one-week service trips to Ethiopia for post-army and post-national service young adults.
“Coming here tonight is the least we can do to help them get off on the right foot,” said Tal Hadad, 18. “I wish [Israelis] would care a little bit more about this issue and accept people.”
Or Getahun from Kiryat Malachi was waiting with his grandfather for the daughter of his niece, whom he hadn’t seen in 15 years. His niece arrived on the October flight and has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of her daughter. His grandfather had never met his great-grandchildren. “It’s a sad story but ended with happiness,” said Getahun. “In my family there were so many reactions, some were angry, some were not, but at least it ended happily so the mom and daughter can meet.”