It was the closing of a circle. Not just the one that opened 30 years ago, when the first Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel from refugee camps in Sudan in a brazen Israeli-CIA covert operation. But the closing of a deeper, more profound circle: the return to Zion. The journey home.
Amid the tears, the dancing, the laughs and the revelrous overflow of excitement at Ben Gurion airport, history was made Wednesday with the arrival of those deemed to be the last of the eligible Falash Mura — Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries largely due to persecution and economic woes and who maintained a distinct communal identity.
Many Ethiopian-Israelis came to welcome their relatives. Some waited for brothers and sisters; others came to see sons and daughters. The much-awaited arrival of this final group of 450 Falash Mura also symbolized something for the entire community, given that the flight likely marked the end of mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel.
Solomon Mogose (that’s his Hebrew name, the one he uses now, he said) from Haifa was reunited with his two sisters and their husbands and children. Their arrival brought together all Solomon’s siblings save for one sister, who stayed behind in Gondar.
“We’re all here in Israel,” he said, beaming. “We’re together again, us and my parents.”
Solomon kept brushing the head of his 14-year-old nephew, who had just arrived from Gondar. He explained things to the youth in Amharic and told him he’d know Hebrew in no time. “That’s how it was for me. A little strange in the beginning… But I’ve been here four years. And the most important thing is that they’re here now.”
Also in attendance were numerous Israeli officials, notably Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and rookie Ethiopian MKs from the Yesh Atid party, Shimon Solomon and Penina Tamnu-Shata.
For other Ethiopian-Israelis, like David Mihret, moments of closure like Wednesday provided families with meaning and a context for healing. It let them reunite, and let others accept who they’ve lost along the way.
Mihret was 16 in 1981 when his family picked up and left for Sudan after a Christian group fired on his grandfather’s village and killed his uncle, his 7-month-pregnant aunt and his cousin. Then, as they were approaching Sudan, four of his uncles and three of his brothers were kidnapped and put in jail by the Sudanese authorities.
For 31 years, Mihret’s family has not seen or heard from their missing relatives. His father died without ever seeing his sons and brothers again, and one of Mihret’s brothers — who was married and had children before he was kidnapped — would now be a grandfather. Their absence haunts his family at every occasion. It’s the feeling of not knowing and of never gaining closure that makes the tragedy so painful, over and over again, Mihret explained.
When Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, spoke to the newcomers about their longing for a Jewish homeland, it seemed appropriate, and not in any contrived sort of way. Who better than Sharansky, who sat for years in a cell in a Soviet gulag and dreamed of Jerusalem, to relate to this group that’s also waited more than a dozen years to reach the Promised Land?
“The Jewish community of Ethiopia is one of the oldest in the world, with roots reaching back to the times of King Solomon and Queen Sheba,” Sharansky said to the new Israelis. “For thousands of years this community has been yearning for Zion. By completing the Journey of Operation Dove’s Wings, we close the circle on a journey that began three thousand years ago.”
Arriving to Israel with the flight from Ethiopia, Sharansky said he saw in the Falash Muras’ eyes a fear that, as the day of their flight approached, something would go wrong, and that maybe Israel would change its mind.
“They [the Falash Mura] waited many years to come to Israel. And I think they were scared that it wouldn’t happen,” he said.
“I remember this feeling myself,” he said, reflecting on his own trip from captivity to freedom in Israel. “I remember that I kept asking myself if it was a dream and if I’d wake up and find myself in prison again… And so it was with them. I could tell they were frightened, and that they too had that feeling that it almost wasn’t going to happen.”
The group of 450 was brought to Israel as the concluding part of Operation Dove’s Wings, which began three years ago when the government decided to airlift the last of the eligible Falash Mura, some 7,500 individuals, to Israel. They have been deemed the last of the Falash Mura immigration — and certainly the final mass Ethiopian arrivals to Israel.
Over the last 30 years, some 92,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel. The Ethiopian-Israeli community today, including the Falash Mura, stands at more than 130,000.
Although the Falash Mura are not entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return — a benefit reserved for individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent (based on the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws that categorized people as Jewish if they were one-quarter Jewish) — special government decisions have granted them permission to come to Israel, pending authorization from the Interior Ministry.
For a Falash Mura to be eligible, according to the original, main government criteria, an individual had to have Jewish matrilineal descent, even it was from several generations back. The government based the criterion, first, on the Jewish legal concept that Judaism is passed down through the mother and, second, on the concept of zera Israel, or the “seeds of Israel,” i.e., those who may not be Jewish but embody a relationship to the faith.
The numerous Jewish philanthropies that donated years of money and effort to convince Israel to take in the Falash Mura have said they will get behind the government and now focus their energies on helping integrate the community into Israel. But it’s no secret those same humanitarian Jewish groups have continued to argue that Israel should maintain a more lenient approach for determining which Falash Mura are eligible for Israeli citizenship.
The government has closed up shop in Gondar, the northern city that was the epicenter of the Jewish Agency’s activities in Ethiopia, and relinquished control of the school and community center it used to operate there. Yet, there are still reportedly close to 500 Falash Mura individuals who were granted permission to immigrate but who haven’t been brought to Israel. It is possible they will be able to come individually, but not, with the closure of Jewish Agency activity in Ethiopia, en masse.
As the two final flights headed to Israel on Wednesday morning, hundreds of Ethiopian-Israelis protested outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, charging that the government had abandoned their relatives in Gondar and calling on the premier to reconsider allowing them to make immigrate.
It was the weight of such pressure on the government that turned the tide and forced the Cabinet to make two landmark decisions, in 2003 and 2010, to bring thousands of Falash Mura to Israel. Previously, members of the community had arrived piecemeal in the wake of the first wave of Ethiopian immigration
Today, some 50,000 Falash Mura and their descendants live in Israel.
So what’s next for this community, beyond the promises and the government declarations?
The real focus, at least in the near future, seems to be on turning attention inward and working to better integrate the Falash Mura into Israeli society.
As it stands, about half of Ethiopian-immigrant families live below the poverty line — which is at least double the national rate. The trouble is that once they leave the absorption centers, where many families live for two years, the gaps between their former lives and their new ones are so vast that they are often left unprepared and isolated — in addition to sometimes being discriminated against.
But at the ceremony for the incoming Falash Mura, the focus was not on the hard, steep road that lies ahead, but on the journey they took to get here — because, as Sharansky said, there’s no better symbol of the road to Zion than that pursued by the Ethiopians.
The journey that ended Wednesday was not just that of the Falash Mura but of many Ethiopian Jews, whose personal stories are painful but often uplifting testaments to all that the community has been through. Civil wars, famine and tragedy when escaping Ethiopia for Sudan are just some of the hardships they encountered along their way to Israel.
Returning to Zion truly was realizing the dream of coming home.