A group of 82 Ethiopians immigrants landed in Israel on Monday evening, the first of some thousand members of the Jewish community to be allowed to move to the Jewish state under a cabinet decision made in October 2018.
There are about 8,000 Ethiopian Jews still in Ethiopia, most of whom are ‘Falashmura,’ meaning their ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago.
Only members with first degree family already in Israel were included in the October decision. They are able to bring their partners and any unmarried children who do not have children of their own.
Although a cabinet decision in 2015 promised to bring the entire Falashmura community to Israel over a five-year period, the government has not budgeted the approximately NIS 200 million ($55 million) per year to absorb the new immigrants.
Just one Ethiopian Jewish family was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 2018, Israel Bible Quiz participant Sintayehu Shafrao and his family. At least 1,000 immigrants are expected to come to Israel in 2019, but the fate of the rest of the community is uncertain.
On Monday evening, the group of new immigrants was welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport by Immigration and Aliyah Minister Yoav Gallant and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. Many of them then reunited with their relatives living in Israel, some of whom had been waiting for their loved ones for many years.
Atersau Baiye, 61, said he had been waiting for over 12 years to come to Israel and be reunited with his daughter, who lives in Tel Aviv.
“I am very happy to be here and excited to see my daughter, but it’s a mixed feeling,” he said. Baiye said that because he immigrated with his wife and six kids, he was forced to leave two other children behind in Ethiopia. “I don’t know if we will see them again.”
Despite the challenges, Baiye said he was ready to start his new life. “I’m going to work hard, earn a living, and live like everyone else.”
Another new immigrant, Atenkut Setataw, 29, who has been a cantor for the Tikvat Zion synagogue in Gondar for the last eight years, said that he had been waiting to be allowed to immigrate for 15 years. Times of Israel profiled Setataw’s long quest to move to Israel in a 2016 article.
In previous years, Setataw has overseen the effort to handbake 50,000 matzah before Passover. Setataw’s biological parents died when he was a young child, and his uncle and aunt raised him. Because he was not part of his uncle and aunt’s nuclear family, he was not approved to immigrate to Israel with them. He was left on his own at age 14.
Traditionally, marriages in many of the Jewish families in Gondar are arranged or approved by the bride and groom’s families. All of Setataw’s family was in Israel, except for his older brother and grandfather. Setataw’s uncle, acting in the role of father, ended up approving the marriage by phone from his home in Jerusalem.
“I’ve been waiting for so long to come to Israel,” he said, according to a release from the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. “And now, with God’s help, I am here.”
In November 2015, the government unanimously adopted a plan to bring the remaining Ethiopians to Israel by 2020. But the plan faltered within months when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement it because the NIS 1 billion ($280 million) it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
In 2017, the Finance Ministry launched the first step of the plan, allocating funds for 1,300 people to emigrate to Israel. All 1,300 arrived in the country just before the end of that year, on flights sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem as part of its program to support Jewish immigration to Israel. The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has committed NIS 4.3 million ($1.2 million) towards the flights and other assistance for Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in 2019.
“This is an exciting moment, and the whole of Israel is embracing you. The land of Israel is embracing you,” Herzog said Monday, calling on the government to also bring the rest of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Israeli family members were not allowed to attend the official welcoming ceremony, instead waiting for hours at the arrivals gate while their relatives received their identity cards.
“The Jewish Agency will help and accompany you in the coming two years with everything that it needed so that you can integrate into Israeli society and build your home and your families’ future here,” Herzog added.
Alisa Bodner, spokeswoman for an Ethiopian-Jewish activist group, criticized the decision to only bring 1,000 of the thousands waiting for permission to come to Israel, calling it “a cruel game that forces parents to make an inhuman decision between their kids in Israel and their kids in Ethiopia.
“We are far from content with the partial and superficial fulfillment of the decision adopted by [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2015,” she said.
“While the Israeli government begs other communities in the world to make aliyah, it is ignoring its decisions regarding Ethiopian Jewry, and thus continues the discrimination against members of the Ethiopian community,” she added.
The community says the process for immigration approval is poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80 percent of the tribe members in Ethiopia say they have first-degree relatives living in Israel, and some have been waiting for 20 years to immigrate.
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falashmura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.
October’s decision said that conversion services will be provided and that the new arrivals will receive the same benefits as all other immigrants from Ethiopia.
About 135,000 Ethiopian Jews currently live in Israel. Some 22,000 of them were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991.
AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.