When Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch, youth leaders from Ethiopia’s Jewish community in Gondar, get up to address Jewish summer camps and other groups across America this summer, they trace three distinct stages as people hear their presentation about the 9,000 Jews left in Ethiopia desperately trying to move to Israel.
“It’s really strange for them, they ask us a lot of questions,” Dereve, 21, said by phone from Washington, DC. “They don’t understand. Then they get angry, and then they want to help.”
“They say to us, if you’re wearing a kippah, why can’t you go?” he added. “They ask us, if I can [make aliyah], why can’t you? And I answer them that I don’t know.”
In November, Jews in Ethiopia celebrated the government’s decision to approve the aliyah of 9,000 Ethiopian Jews. The approval faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption was not part of the budget.
“They ask us, if I can [make aliyah], why can’t you? And I answer them that I don’t know.”
Two Likud MKs, Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, refused to vote with the coalition until the government funded the decision to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In April, the government agreed to find the necessary funds, but a Knesset shake-up in late May meant that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a larger majority in the coalition, and Neguise and Amsalem’s tactics will not work again.
The aliyah of the “last” 9,000 Jews was expected to begin in June and continue for approximately five years. But as the summer stretches into August, no plans to restart the immigration process have been made.
“We want the Ethiopian aliyah to be higher on the agenda,” said David Elcott, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service who teaches organizing and public advocacy. “At one point they said that they weren’t bringing Ethiopians to Israel because there isn’t money. At no time since the establishment of Israel has Israel said we won’t bring people in because of money.”
Elcott, his wife Rabbi Shira Milgrom, and other rabbis in the White Plains, NY area organized the speaking tour for the two youth leaders, which is independent of any organizations or movements. Rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues in White Plains, NY funded the speaking tour.
Elcott said the speaking tour for Dereve and Deboch was meant to mobilize the American Jewish community to put pressure on Israel from the Diaspora, emphasizing that the idea of “kibbutz galuyot” or the ingathering of exiles, is a Jewish issue rather than an Israeli issue.
“Historically, the American Jewish community has been very passionate about aliyah for endangered Jews,” he said. “I don’t know whether this could escalate to a campaign that would help underwrite the aliyah like it did in 1984 and 1991 [when large numbers of Ethiopians came to Israel in Operation Solomon and Operation Moses], and for the Russian Jews. The presumption is that for 9,000 people, Israel has the resources.”
Part of the issue that Dereve and Deboch must explain in their talks is why there are still Jews in Ethiopia if Israel announced, to great fanfare, that Ethiopian aliyah was finished in 2013.
The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are usually classified as “Falashmura,” a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. But most Jews in Ethiopia today reject this term. They are willing to go through the conversion process when they arrive in Israel, as some are not matrilineal Jewish, but they bristle at the suggestion that they are not ethnically Jewish.
Dereve and Deboch are visiting New York, Washington DC, Florida, and Los Angeles, where they are speaking to organizations like summer camps, federations, Jewish fraternity houses, Hadassah, and other Jewish leadership initiatives to share their story.
“They’re giving us time for fun things also, but we didn’t come for fun, we have a specific goal, and we want to meet with people who can help us,” said Dereve. Deboch said he felt like he had “the whole responsiblitity of the community” on his shoulders.
Dereve, 21, is in 11th grade in Gondar after he was forced to repeat four years of school since the Ethiopian government did not recognize the Jewish school he attended, which was organized by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ). Dereve speaks fluent Hebrew, which he attributes to the early Jewish education.
Dereve said he is still in Ethiopia because the Interior Ministry determined that his maternal grandmother was not Jewish, which disqualified him from aliyah. Since they are not Jewish according to halachka, or Jewish law, the Jews currently in Ethiopia do not qualify to come to Israel under the Law of Return, which stipulates that all Jews can get citizenship in Israel.
Individuals wishing to immigrate from Ethiopia are “subject to ad hoc decisions by the Israeli government, made on a humanitarian basis,” said Avi Mayer, spokesman for the Jewish Agency. “The Jewish Agency will carry out any decision by the Government of Israel pertaining to immigration from Ethiopia to the best of our ability, as we have over the past six decades.”
In his talks, Dereve also tries to emphasize the uniqueness of Ethiopian Jewish identity. “In Ethiopia we have our own culture, we have good things and hard things,” he said. “For the hard things we need help, but for the good things we need to show you them so you will know our culture.”
Deboch, 24, is studying tourism management at the University of Gondar. “Never in my life did I think I’d be learning at university in Ethiopia,” he said. “I always thought I’d be in university in Israel.”
“We want to go to Israel not just for the ‘good life,’ but we believe this is our land,” he said. Both Dereve and Deboch said they are aware of the racism that Ethiopians face in Israel, but that did not temper their dreams. “Across the world there are Jews, in the US or wherever, if they want to move to Israel they can go tomorrow. But we can’t. I’ve been waiting for 15 years to go to Israel.”
North American Jewry played a major role in the previous waves of Ethiopian aliyah, starting in 1984 and throughout the 1990s. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry was a large force in Ethiopia, providing schools and feeding programs for children and mothers, though they sometimes clashed with the Jewish Agency.
NACOEJ agreed to leave Ethiopia in 2010 after striking a deal with the Israeli government to restart aliyah, which the government upheld until 2013, when they announced that all the Ethiopian Jews were in Israel. Currently NACOEJ runs educational programs for Ethiopian and at-risk students in Israel.
NACOEJ founder and director Barbara Ribokove Gordon said she was “anguished” over the 9,000 Jews still left in Ethiopia, but acknowledged that getting this issue back on the agenda for North American Jews is a formidable challenge.
“Getting it revived, to take it on at a federeation level, it’s a problem now, it’s old news,” she said. “People feel like, ‘Oh, all of them are in Israel.’ If Israel checked them, they must have had a reason for leaving them behind.’ It isn’t the way it was in the 80s and 90s when it was still new and exciting and heartwarming.”
As for finding a way to rekindle that interest?
“So far we haven’t succeeded, but God forbid it should be a catastrophe” that gets people interested again, said Ribokove Gordon. “I will say judging by the news, I said to someone yesterday that what should be happening now is Israel should go into their great rescue mode and get them out of there.”
Over the past month, Ethiopia has been rocked by anti-government protests, especially in Amhara state where Gondar is located. The bloodiest weekend was August 6 and 7, when an estimated 50-100 people were killed protesting government repression and land rights issues. The government switched off the internet over the weekend, so news of the protests only began to trickle out on Monday, August 8.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 400 people have been killed in protests this summer.
In addition to the shaky political situation in Ethiopia, Elcott notes that the American Jewish community should take a special interest right now in the plight of Ethiopian Jews. “In America, race has been a central area of Jewish concern historically,” Elcott said. With the current controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and their position on Israel, this situation is a platform for Americans to take a stand on issues pertaining to black Jews. “We say, we have black lives that matter in Africa,” said Elcott.
“We think that maybe [people at our events] can influence things that are happening in Israel,” said Dereve. “I spoke with journalists in New York, a lot of organizations, women’s leaders, I think those women have a lot of power,” he said. “The more people we have the more it will help, because we don’t have any other dream.”