Ethiopian soldier’s brother lands in Israel, ending bureaucratic battle

After months-long struggle with interior and immigration ministries, Ethiopian Jew joins his family in the Holy Land

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Sergeant Chalachew Mekonen receives a citation for service during Operation Protective Edge from Southern Command chief Sami Turgeman in February 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Sergeant Chalachew Mekonen receives a citation for service during Operation Protective Edge from Southern Command chief Sami Turgeman in February 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Alemneh Mekonen, the brother of an Ethiopian-born Israel Defense Forces soldier, arrived in Israel on Tuesday morning, following a months-long bureaucratic struggle between the Interior Ministry and the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

Chalachew Mekonen, who earned a citation for his actions in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, and fellow soldier Argaw Tesfaye had appealed to the government to allow their remaining family members to immigrate to Israel.

When news of the two soldiers’ struggle to reunite with their families broke after last summer’s Gaza conflict, then-interior minister Gilad Erdan granted the families special permission, but the case quickly became ensnared in the bureaucracy of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

Mekonen and Tesfaye are both members of the Falashmura community of Ethiopian Jews. The group’s request for immigration rights to Israel have been held up by legal disputes and confusion for years, as the community had converted — at least nominally — to Christianity. Supporters of the group’s right to immigrate say the conversions were performed under duress by missionaries in the 19th century, while those opposed argue that the group converted willingly.

"וזה הרגע הנה באה השעה"- אלמנך (אחיו של צ'אלאצ'ו) ממש ברגעים אלו נפגש עם בני משפחתו בשדה התעופה.

Posted by ‎שובו אחים‎ on Monday, June 29, 2015

Erdan’s special permission would allow the family members into the country, but in order to receive the financial benefits awarded to new immigrants, known in Hebrew as a sal klita, or absorption basket, the families would require approval from Immigration Minster Ze’ev Elkin.

Elkin, however, was not forthcoming.

“Not long after the message from the interior minister, we understood that this was probably going to be a battle with Israeli bureaucracy that would be harder than the battles we fought during Operation Protective Edge,” Mekonen told the Walla news site last month.

The soldiers’ attorney, Ayal Faltek, explained some of the process: “I spoke with the Interior Ministry, the Absorption Ministry, with legal advisers and with the immigration department. One person would say ‘yes’ and the other would say ‘no.’

“The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. They sent Chalachew first to the Interior Ministry office in Ramat Gan and then to the one in Jerusalem. In short, the epitome of bureaucracy.”

But ultimately, Elkin accepted the two soldiers’ pleas, Channel 2 reported. He told them that he would instruct the Jewish Agency, which processes immigration requests, to allow family members to move to Israel and to afford them full rights as new immigrants.

“It was very moving to know that our brothers would move to Israel and receive a sal klita so that we could finally be together. We thank the minister,” Mekonen and Tesfaye wrote in a statement.

Tesafye’s brother has yet to arrive in the country.

Posted by ‎שובו אחים‎ on Monday, June 29, 2015

Jerusalem launched Operation Wings of a Dove in 2010 in order to bring the rest of the Falashmura community to Israel. But in 2013, the government officially declared an end to the program, which by then had brought roughly 7,500 Falashmura to the country. Left behind, however, were several thousand community members who had not been approved for immigration. Mekonen’s and Tesfaye’s relatives were among them.

“I am overwhelmed. I thank God that I am here,” Alemneh Mekonen told Maariv upon his arrival. “I thank my brother Chalachew who led this fight for me and I pray that more Jews from Ethiopia will move to Israel after me.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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