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With funding from Chinese backer, 162 Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel

6th flight of Operation ‘Tzur Yisrael’ arrives with financial support from entrepreneur and Keren Hayesod; minister hails ‘the return of our sons and daughters home to Israel’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Tedplach Bitao, 28, rejoices as she arrives in  in Israel from Ethiopia on January 22, 2021. (Avi Hayun for Keren Hayesod)
Tedplach Bitao, 28, rejoices as she arrives in in Israel from Ethiopia on January 22, 2021. (Avi Hayun for Keren Hayesod)

Dozens of new immigrants from Ethiopia stepped into the brisk early morning winter air at Ben Gurion airport on Friday to start their new lives as Israeli citizens. Clutching Israeli flags, some passengers knelt to kiss the ground after they descended the stairs from the plane.

The Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 162 passengers was the sixth flight in Operation Tzur Yisrael, which aims to bring 2,000 Ethiopians from the Falash Mura community waiting in camps to Israel in the coming months.

The planned ceremony to greet the immigrants was scrapped in light of Israel’s coronavirus restrictions.

The flight was funded by Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal, which serves as the official fundraising body for Israel. It was financially supported by Peter Wang, a Christian Chinese entrepreneur.

“The fact that dozens of new Olim will celebrate this Shabbat on the land of Israel fills me with feelings of pride and satisfaction,” said Ethiopian-born Absorption and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata in a statement. “Today, a long and taxing journey of waiting to be reunited with their families is over, and I am happy to lead the return of our sons and daughters home to Israel.”

In October,  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to bring 2,000 members of the community to the country. The proposal earmarked NIS 370 million ($109 million) for the mass immigration, the Prime Minister’s Office said at the time.

Members of the Bitao family who arrived on January 22, 2021 as part of Operation Tzur Yisrael kiss the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport (Avi Hayun/Keren Hayesod)

The original plan was to bring the 2,000 Ethiopian immigrants to Israel by the end of 2020. Keren Hayesod is working to raise money to help Israel complete the mission by mid-2021, the organization’s chairman Sam Grundwerg told The Times of Israel.

Though there are many thousands more who are waiting to make the move, the individuals approved were given priority status, primarily for family reunification.

The immigrants will quarantine in specially prepared facilities before beginning Hebrew study, job training and schooling.

A long-awaited reunion

Families have waited for years to move to Israel. Tedplach Bitao, 28, spent more than 12 years in Gondar. She landed Friday with her husband and two children, alongside her older brother Shagau and his family.

Members of Bitao’s family have moved to Israel separately over the years — four of her siblings in 2010 and their elderly mother made the flight two years ago, and lives in the absorption center in Beit Alfa.

Members of the Bitao family packing just before their flight from Ethiopia to Israel (Shira Aman, Jewish Agency for Israel)

Bitao spoke of her excitement at having the opportunity to hug her mother again, and said that her dream is to acclimate in Israel, learn Hebrew and work to bring the rest of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.

Her brother Amana is slated to arrive on a flight next week with his family.

‘God has heard their cries’

Wang, the Chinese businessman who supported the flight financially, told The Times of Israel that his support for aliyah (immigration to Israel) comes from his deep Christian faith.

“’Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back,’” said Wang, quoting Deuteronomy.

“Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia have been praying to return to the land of their ancestors for centuries,” Wang continued, citing his concern over the precarious situation in which they find themselves. “I believe God has heard their cries out of distress and seen their longing for the promised land.”

Ethiopian olim descend from the plane on January 22, 2021 (Avi Hayun for Keren Hayesod)

Wang was in Israel in 2018 for the ceremonies marking Israel’s 70th anniversary.  He said the visit allowed him to experience “in a profound way how God is with Israel.”

Keren Hayesod chairman Sam Grundwerg (photo credit: Courtesy)

Grundwerg told The Times of Israel that there has been especially significant support from evangelical  Christians around the world over the past decade.

“We’ve had Christians who supported aliyah from the former Soviet Union, from Ukraine, even from Mexico,” said Grundwerg. “But there is something special that many Christians connect to with Ethiopian aliyah.”

Keren Hayesod works closely with the Jewish Agency, which handles relations with the Ethiopian government, and whose staff is on the ground in Gondar and Addis Ababa.

Grundwerg estimated the cost of the flight at around $320,000. Some of that went on preparations for the flight, including pandemic-related health precautions and other vaccinations.

Most of the funding from the Israeli government goes toward long-term costs, like housing and vocational training, leaving other Israeli and Zionist institutions to support the remainder of the preparatory costs as well as the flights themselves.

For Grundwerg, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust and whose great-grandparents were murdered, helping others immigrate to Israel is particularly personal.

“For me, coming on aliyah 30 years ago by choice, and to then be able to be at the head of an organization whose number one purpose for 100 years is to help bring olim, it’s absolutely coming full circle for me,” he said.

Thousands on the way, but many more still waiting

In November 2015, the Israeli government passed a decision to airlift to bring “the last of the community” waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar.

Up to 14,000 people with Jewish roots are waiting in Ethiopia to come to Israel, but the government approved the airlifting of just 2,000 in late 2020 and early 2021, despite the pandemic and the recent outbreak of a war in the northern Tigray region.

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.

The community faces dire conditions in Ethiopia, which have intensified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work has dried up and food is in short supply, with prices up by 35 to 50 percent; families in Israel who 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.

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 August, Tamano-Shata presented a NIS 1.3 billion ($382.6 million) framework to the Knesset to bring 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel and to close the camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa.

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.

About 140,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin 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.

Sue Surkes and agencies contributed to this report.

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