Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrated outside the Knesset on Monday, demanding the government fulfill a pledge to bring some 8,000 of their countrymen remaining in Ethiopia to Israel.
The government agreed in 2015 to bring the remaining Ethiopians to Israel, but it has not authorized funding for their move.
Most of the stranded Ethiopians have close relatives in Israel. Although the families have Jewish roots, Israel does not consider them Jewish, meaning they need government approval to immigrate.
“I have two sisters in Ethiopia still waiting for 13 years… [Our] mother is crying day and night, let’s stop this pain,” Sefi Bililin said at the protest Monday.
Her family is one of hundreds that have been split between Israel and Ethiopia over what they say is an inconsistent immigration policy. Many accuse the state of discriminating against the Ethiopian minority, and fear the 2019 budget will fall short.
Alisa Bodner, spokeswoman for the protesters, said the families have had enough and feel “their lives are worth just as much as any other lives here in Israel.”
Israel clandestinely airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews from the country in the 1980s and 1990s, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the ancient community to the Jewish state and help them integrate.
About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of over 8 million. But their assimilation has not been smooth, with many arriving without a modern education, and then falling into unemployment and poverty.
As far as Israel is concerned, the drive to bring over Ethiopia’s Jewish community officially ended in the ’90s, but amid pressure from lawmakers and family members, successive Israeli governments have opened the door to immigration by a community of descendants of Ethiopian Jews, who were forced to convert to Christianity under duress about a century ago.
Community members have been permitted to immigrate over the last two decades in limited bursts that have left hundreds of families torn apart.
Israel says it has continued to greenlight the community’s immigration on humanitarian grounds, but it also has set a slew of requirements on those waiting in Ethiopia, in part to prevent what could be an endless loop of immigration claims.
While Ethiopians have made strides in certain fields and have reached the halls of Israel’s parliament, many complain of racism, lack of opportunity, endemic poverty and routine police harassment.
Those frustrations boiled over into violent protests three years ago after footage emerged of an Ethiopian-Israeli in an army uniform being beaten by police. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews and their supporters blocked main highways and clashed with police in a bid to draw attention to their plight, including what they say is unchecked police brutality against their community members.
Activists have been lobbying the government to approve the immigration, penning letters to Israeli officials and sharing their poignant stories of separation in parliamentary committees. They see the issue as an easily solvable one that has needlessly shattered families and marooned people in a troubled country.
The anticipated estimated cost of flying all 8,000 people to Israel along with housing and social services is roughly 1.4 billion shekels, or about $400 million, a sizeable figure but a tiny fraction of a nearly 500 billion shekel ($143 billion) national budget, according to an official from the Finance Ministry.