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Immigration minister arrives in Ethiopia to airlift 500 Jews to Israel

Some 14,000 Ethiopians with Jewish roots are waiting to come to Israel, but government has so far approved just 2,000

In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)
In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)

Israel’s first-ever cabinet member of Ethiopian descent, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, arrived in Ethiopia Saturday night to spearhead the airlifting of 500 members of the Jewish community to Israel this week.

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.

“One of the national goals I set for myself as minister of immigration and absorption is to put an end to the saga of those waiting in Ethiopia, an injustice that has been crying out to the skies for decades, causing separation of families and imparting emotional damage on those fighting to reunite with their loved ones,” Tamano-Shata said upon her departure from Israel.

“Five hundred of our people will now have the privilege of fulfilling the vision of our ancestors to reach Jerusalem,” she said, adding, “The government of Israel cannot abandon and neglect our brothers and sisters who have been waiting in Ethiopia for years and years. This injustice must end and I will continue to work until the very last of those waiting makes aliyah and reunites with their family.”

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.

Illustrative: Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire to ‘return to Jerusalem,’ as they celebrate from a hilltop in the holy city overlooking the Temple Mount, on November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon/File)

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 had 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.

“I’m currently pushing for a full and fast solution for those waiting with a framework that will soon be presented to the government of Israel,” Tamano-Shata said. “It moves me to return as a government minister to the country where I was born and left at the age of three on Operation Moses, this time to carry out a national mission on behalf of the government of Israel.”

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 over, according to Jewish Agency figures.

Members of the Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today. 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 the Prime Minister’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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