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Ethiopian Israelis beg government to airlift relatives from war-torn country

Rally outside PM’s office draws some 200 protesters; many hold up photos of family members who’ve been waiting years to immigrate

Members of the Jewish Ethiopian community hold up photographs of their relatives outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on November 25, 2020, during a demonstration demanding to bring thousands of their remaining brethren from Ethiopia to Israel. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Members of the Jewish Ethiopian community hold up photographs of their relatives outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on November 25, 2020, during a demonstration demanding to bring thousands of their remaining brethren from Ethiopia to Israel. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Some 200 Ethiopian Israelis rallied outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Wednesday, condemning the government’s foot-dragging that has prevented their relatives from immigrating to Israel from the war-torn African country.

“We demand justice for our relatives,” read signs at the protest, as many demonstrators held up photographs of the relatives left behind.

Up to 14,000 people with Jewish roots are waiting in Ethiopia to come to Israel, but the government has approved the airlifting of just 2,000 in January 2021, despite the pandemic and the recent outbreak of a war in the northern Tigray region.

A group that campaigns to bring the Jews remaining in Ethiopia to Israel warned last week that those waiting in Gondar and Addis Ababa are in “immediate, real and mortal danger” and should be airlifted immediately.

Members of the Jewish Ethiopian community hold up photographs of their relatives outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 25, 2020, during a demonstration demanding to bring thousands of their remaining brethren from Ethiopia to Israel. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Fighting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front from the country’s northwest claimed its first victim from Gondar’s Jewish community on November 12 — Girmew Gete, 36. He had waited 24 years to immigrate to Israel.

Since the outbreak of violence in Tigray, more than 40,000 in Ethiopia have fled the violence into eastern Sudan, and rockets have fallen on the Eritrean capital Asmara and Ethiopian cities outside Tigray, spurring fears the conflict could widen. Hundreds have reportedly been killed, including at least 600 civilians that Ethiopia’s rights watchdog says were massacred in the town of Mai-Kadra.

The Israeli government policy on the immigration of Ethiopian Jews in recent years has been rife with abandoned pledges. In 2013, the Jewish Agency declared the end of Ethiopian aliyah, prompting protests by Ethiopian lawmakers and community members in Israel. In November 2015, the government passed a decision to airlift “the last of the community” waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar to Israel within five years.

Since that decision, however, just 2,257 Ethiopians have been brought, according to Jewish Agency figures.

Members of the Jewish Ethiopian community hold up photographs of their relatives outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 25, 2020, during a demonstration demanding to bring thousands of their remaining brethren from Ethiopia to Israel. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

About 9,000 of the would-be immigrants have been waiting for 15 or more years to immigrate, local activists say. About a quarter of that number, located in the capital Addis Ababa, have been waiting for more than 20 years, they say, while the rest, in Gondar city, have been hanging on for 15 to 20 years.

The coronavirus hit the group especially hard economically, sources told The Times of Israel. Work has dried up and food is in short supply, with prices up by 35 to 50 percent; families in Israel who previously sent their relatives money are strapped for cash because of their own COVID-19 related problems, and philanthropic organizations are less able to raise donations due to the pandemic.

About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of nearly 9 million. Some 22,000 were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, mostly from the Beta Israel community.

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating. The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to Netanyahu’s office.

Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.

Sue Surkes and agencies contributed to this report.

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