ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Representatives for thousands of Ethiopian Jews announced Wednesday they will stage a mass hunger strike if Israel eliminates funding to allow them to join their families in the Jewish state.
Hundreds gathered at a synagogue in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to express concern that Israel’s proposed 2019 budget removes the funding to help them immigrate to reunite with relatives.
Most of the nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in the East African nation are said to have family members already in Israel. Some told The Associated Press they have been separated for well over a decade.
Activists say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2015 pledged to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In 1991, with Ethiopia in civil war, Israel carried out the dramatic Operation Solomon, successfully airlifting out some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in less than two days.
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. 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 matrilineally Jewish, but they bristle at the suggestion that they are not ethnically Jewish.
“All of us here in Ethiopia are in a foreign land and suffering from acute poverty and hunger,” said Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa. “Most of our family members are in Israel. Several of our brothers and sisters who took dangerous routes to meet their relatives in Israel have died during their journey.”
He said Addis Ababa’s community of Ethiopian Jews, which numbers around 800 households, will hold a hunger strike if the Israeli government doesn’t heed their plea.
“We have had enough here. What have we done wrong to suffer this much?” he said, bursting into tears and prompting others to cry out. Several people carried photos of their loved ones who are already in Israel.
Wednesday’s gathering was described as a “solidarity event.” Ethiopians currently are prohibited from holding protests under the country’s latest state of emergency, imposed this month after the most severe anti-government demonstrations in a quarter-century.
Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment on the issue of the Ethiopian Jews. Most of the community lives in the northern Amhara region, one of the areas that has experienced the sometimes deadly anti-government protests that began in November 2015 with demands for greater freedoms.
The origin of the Ethiopian Jews is unclear but a popular legend says they descended from the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian Jews are often referred to in Ethiopia as “Falashas,” a derogatory word which translates into “strangers” or “migrants.”
Chekol Alemayehu, who said he has been waiting desperately to go to Israel and meet his relatives, said he completed all the immigration papers but was turned back at the airport more than a decade ago. “I’ve no idea why. My daughter died in Israel a few months ago. And I’ve been suffering since,” he said, displaying family photos.
In a letter addressed to Netanyahu, the Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa said they want to immediately and without any preconditions go to Israel and join family members.
“We will never lose hope in going to Israel because we are winner people,” the letter says. “Dear Mr. Prime Minister, we want you to make our wish a reality. We ask you this in the name of Our God, Israel’s God.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.