In October 2016, 63 Ethiopian immigrants touched down at Ben Gurion Airport to the joy and tears of eagerly waiting family members. They were the first Ethiopian Jews to make it to Israel since the government announced an “end” of immigration from Ethiopia over three years earlier, a move that angered Ethiopian Israelis who still had family in Gondar and Addis Ababa.
Amid speeches and flag-waving at Ben Gurion, leaders from the Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky to Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver applauded the beginning of a new era, which would bring approximately 1,300 Ethiopian Jews to Israel each year, until the 9,000 Jews still living in Ethiopia all arrive in the Jewish state. But now, eight months after that government decision, the several dozen people who arrived on that October flight remain the only Jews to leave Ethiopia.
Despite a high-profile campaign and a much-celebrated agreement, not one member of the Ethiopian Jewish community has had an immigration request processed by the Interior Ministry to date, let alone been granted permission to come to Israel.
October’s immigrants were approved by the Interior Ministry before the moratorium and prevented from coming immediately because there was no budgetary allocation for their absorption. But government promises have not been kept and their arrival has not yet been followed by mass immigration from Ethiopian.
On Monday, 500 members of Israel’s Ethiopian community packed into the Knesset’s auditorium for a “celebratory session” of the Immigration and Absorption Committee marking 25 years since Operation Solomon. But while Landver, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Supreme Court justices and other senior officials lauded the daring operation that airlifted almost 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state, the festivities were marred by the uncertainty over the members of the community who still remain in Ethiopia.
“The celebration and the joy is mixed with a deep sense of pain and worry,” Knesset member Avraham Neguise (Likud) told The Times of Israel after addressing the gathering. Neguise came to Israel from Ethiopia as part of Operation Moses in 1984, the precursor to 1992’s Operation Solomon.
“In the past 25 years, over 50,000 more Ethiopians have come to Israel and have become and integral part of society. But we need to remember that the aliyah has not ended and there are still Jews that are stuck in Ethiopia and suffering there,” he said. “We cannot accept this discrimination and we will not give up the fight. If the government continues to disregard the community by failing to implement its own decision, we will fight like we have never fought before.”
‘Nothing is being done’
For many of the hundreds of participants at the Knesset ceremony who still have family in Ethiopia, Neguise’s fighting talk was far more than an exercise in protest politics.
Berahoun Kibrout, who came to the Knesset from the southern city of Beersheba, has seven siblings waiting for permission to immigrate to Israel. They have been waiting for 15 years.
“They are in a terrible situation, they are really suffering. It’s a horrible feeling that nothing is being done,” he said. “Our family has been split up. I have a life here but they are stuck there.”
There are approximately 9,000 people still living in Ethiopia who were not allowed to immigrate to Israel because the Interior Ministry determined they were not Jewish. Ethiopian Jews counter that the process to determine their Jewishness was poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80 percent of the Jews in Ethiopia have first-degree relatives living in Israel.
The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as Falashmura, a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Falashmura are not considered eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires at least one Jewish grandparent and disqualifies someone who has converted to another religion, even if the conversion happened a long time ago.
“We secured the budget, we dealt with all every question that was asked of us, and fulfilled all the needs that were required. Why are the Jews not being brought here yet?” — MK Avraham Neguisa
Kibrout said that the 2016 government decision gave his family hope, but it has been bitterly disappointed by the failure to implement the move. “The government is not taking us seriously. They keep telling us stories but nothing is happening,” he said.
Two weeks ago, at a Knesset hearing on Ethiopian immigration, lawmakers heard about factors that have prevented the process from getting underway: protests in parts of Ethiopia, a lack of office space in Addis Ababa, ongoing work on the embassy in the Ethiopian capital, civil action over the salaries for Israeli envoys, and bureaucratic disagreements between government agencies in Jerusalem.
“This is the most ridiculous game of pass the buck I have ever seen in my life,” bellowed Knesset House Committee chair MK David Bitan (Likud) over the complaints of various representatives of government ministries. “I have chaired hundreds of Knesset meetings and I have never seen such an absurd situation.”
Bitan, along with Neguise, helped to secure the government agreement to restart Ethiopian immigration, at least partially, by refusing to vote with the coalition until funding was found for the move. With the coalition at the time encompassing just 61 of the 120 members of Knesset, the two were able to hold the government’s legislative agenda hostage with their own demands. Now that the coalition has been expanded, their political capital is much less valuable.
Delays and excuses
Although the government unanimously approved the immigration of all the remaining Jews from Ethiopia in November 2015, the decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
In August 2016, the Finance Ministry finally reached a compromise and agreed to allocate a budget that would enable 1,300 Ethiopians to move to Israel, with the money divided among a number of entities, including the Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Jewish Agency.
Now, those three government bodies are blaming each other for a failure to begin the process, let alone fulfill the agreed quota of approximately 100 people a month.
“We secured the budget, we dealt with every question that was asked of us, and fulfilled all the needs that were required. Why are the Jews not being brought here yet?” Neguise asked the government representatives at the February Knesset meeting.
Each had a different answer.
The head of the Foreign Ministry’s consular services unit, Eyal Siso, said that violent protests in Ethiopia had caused massive delays in getting the project underway.
Ethiopia has been dealing with widespread anti-government protests, the most significant civil unrest in decades, centered in the Oromo and Amhara regions. Gondar, which is home to approximately 6,000 of the 9,000 Jews still left in the country, is located in the Amhara region.
But challenged by Neguise, Siso admitted that the Israeli consular building in Gondar had not been at risk for more than two weeks, while the embassy building in Addis Ababa had not been affected at all.
The head of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah and Special Operations Department, Yehuda Scharf, said that the problem in Addis Ababa was not violent protests but a lack of office space at the embassy.
According to Amos Arbel, director of the Interior Ministry’s population registry, a new building is being constructed that will be finished “in the coming months.” Arbel said the work of processing immigration requests cannot start until there are appropriate facilities, a claim ridiculed by Neguise and others, who pointed out that over 50,000 people had immigrated via the Addis Ababa embassy in the past 30 years.
Conceding that the work could indeed have begun in Gondar, Arbel said that a dispute over the salary for Israeli envoys to Ethiopia had prevented Interior Ministry representatives from traveling to the country to start processing applications.
In Israel by Passover?
After the Knesset meeting, the Jewish Agency reported to its board of governors that the Interior Ministry would begin its work soon and flights would resume before the Passover festival in April.
“Representatives from the Ministry of Interior will be travelling to Gondar on February 26th and together with our shaliach [emmissary] will begin the process of interviewing the potential Olim [immigrants]. Once the offices in Addis Ababa are built the Ministry of Interior representatives will be travelling and interviewing potential Olim together with our shaliach in both these locations,” the report, seen by The Times of Israel, read.
“Where are the French Jews? Where are the American Jews? Children and adults are dying while waiting. This is the only ‘aliyah’ that any one is trying to stop.” — MK Eli Alaluf
“We hope that the Ministry of Interior will grant eligibility to those waiting in a timely fashion and that by Passover the first group Olim from Ethiopia will be here to celebrate the holiday in Israel,” the report concluded.
Unconvinced, Neguise last week organized an emergency cross-party delegation of Knesset members Hilik Bar (Zionist Union), Eli Alaluf (Kulanu) and Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid) to travel with him to Ethiopia to assess the situation.
Returning to Israel a day before the House Committee meeting, the MKs told the gathering on Monday about their experiences vising the Jewish communities in both Gondar and Addis Ababa.
“I came back from the visit both embarrassed and enthused. It was emotional for me to see how, living in inhumane conditions, 9,000 people are still preserving their Judaism and yearning to come to Israel,” Cohen said. “But it’s a horrible feeling to know that those Jews are waiting while the State of Israel is not fulfilling its promise to bring them here.”
Ethiopian Jews live in poverty in the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa, after they left their villages 15 to 20 years ago in order to register with Israeli officials and wait their turn to move to Israel. Because they have been in limbo for years, always assuming they would be leaving for Israel momentarily, Jews often did not invest in businesses or real estate, plunging them further into poverty as the years passed. In Gondar, 6,000 Jews live in rented mud shacks, most without electricity or running water.
Members of the Jewish community are also poorer than the average Ethiopian. In 2011, researchers found that 41% of the Jewish children in Gondar were malnourished, and in the 12-23 month age range, 67% were malnourished. The average urban malnutrition rate in Ethiopia is 30%.The Jewish Agency used to run a feeding program for the Jewish community, for nursing and expectant mothers and children up to age 6, but that program ended in 2013 when they announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah.
Alaluf said he was shocked at the ineptitude of the Israeli officials in Ethiopia, noting that one told him the delay had been due to a lack of air conditioning in the embassy. The elevation of Addis Ababa is 2,300 meters (7,700 feet), a cool to cold climate where air conditioning is unnecessary. “They should be immediately returned to Israel and replaced with people with the minimum level of empathy and understanding,” said Alaluf.
Alaluf also directed criticism at Jewish communities around the world, which he said have diverged from the massive support they gave for operations Moses and Solomon, and remained largely silent over the suspension of Ethiopian immigration. “Where are the French Jews? Where are the American Jews? Children and adults are dying while waiting. This is the only ‘aliyah’ that any one is trying to stop. This embarrassment needs to end now,” he said emphatically.
According to Neguise, learning of the incoming delegation, the Interior Ministry envoys who arrived in Ethiopia last Sunday had rushed to begin processing requests so that the Knesset members would see that the government decision was finally on the way to being implemented.
But even with the renewed pressure and the modest progress, representatives of the community in Ethiopia say a first flight before Passover — the festival celebrating the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt — is seeming increasingly unlikely.
A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s population registry declined repeated requests from The Times of Israel to comment on the delays, the conditions of the facilities in Ethiopia, the processing of requests and the date immigration is expected to resume.
In the meantime, the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem has offered to pay approximately $800 per person to cover the transportation costs from Gondar or Addis Ababa to the absorption centers in Israel, according to spokesman David Parsons. For the past 25 years, the ICEJ has paid for about 10% of all annual aliyah flights from around the world, and it is currently sponsoring flights from India, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, in addition to Ethiopia.
Parsons said the ICEJ has already transferred money for about 900 plane tickets for Ethiopian Jews, and is fundraising to pay for the remaining 400 tickets. That would cover the first year of Ethiopian immigration, in which the government approved the absorption of 1,300 Jews.
“We are anxious to see them come and we know that these people have had hopes about coming and it’s been deferred and deferred far to many times already,” said Parsons. “We’ve got another donation to make soon, but it would help to see more flights.”