(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Imagine if the news broke that 20,000 Jews were living in dark, dank tin huts and going to bed hungry. Consider the reaction if this were happening in Argentina, Russia, France, or South Africa. You can bet that if it were any of these places, the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency would find the determination and budget to bring them home to Israel.
These 20,000 Jews do exist: in Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world. There, Jews have always been among the poorest of the poor.
Who are they? Most have first degree relatives in Israel - sons or daughters serving in the IDF, or parents afraid of dying before seeing their children and grandchildren. They are people who moved years ago from their villages to be near the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa or the Israeli consulate in Gondar.
They are the descendents of Jews who were forced to convert years ago but who were never accepted as Christians by their non-Jewish neighbors. They continued to live separately and maintained close contact with their observant Jewish relatives. Most have been involved in a Return to Judiasm program, and the synagogues are full day and night with thousands of men and women. They fervently pray for the peace of Israel and their imminent return.
Rav Shlomo Amar returned from a visit to Ethiopia several years ago convinced that more than 90% of those waiting to make aliyah are Jews and wrote that it is a lifesaving imperative to bring them swiftly to Israel. The Sharon government agreed and in February, 2003 voted unanimously to bring them quickly. In 2005, the cabinet voted to double the rate of aliyah.
Yet for all the resolutions and recent embrace from the American Jewish community, it is the scandal the Jewish people allows today's Marranos/Conversos to remain in dire poverty, some within spitting distance of the Israel Embassy in Addis. So close and so far.
Not one Hebrew speaking Israeli teaches Hebrew to the potential olim. The Jewish Agency retreats into shameful bureaucracy and makes excuses for not providing educational and humanitarian support, claiming that it cannot until the Ministry of Interior determines eligibility to immigrate.
With only one ministry in Ethiopia for many years (now there are three), tens of thousands have suffered needlessly for no rational reason.
Israel claims it has no budget to bring the olim quickly or to provide for proper absorption. Knowing that most in the population would eventually reach Israel, how could Israel and world Jewry be so shortsighted? Absorption in Israel today would be so much easier, successful and less costly if support services had been or were now being provided to these future Israelis.
The Zionist promise is the ingathering of Jews everywhere, especially those living in danger and destitution. Never before have budgetary considerations restricted the number of Jews brought in. No government considered budget during the great immigrations of the 50s, or when the Soviet Jews came in droves, even during the Yom Kippur War.
During the economic crisis in Argentina, the Jewish community mobilized; with the threats of Islamic rage in France, the Ministry of Absorption reached out to the Jews in France to help them make Aliyah. Indeed, emissaries routinely recruit Jews from all Western societies.
So, why have we been so remiss in Ethiopia? If a few non-Jews slip through, should we penalize the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews, leaving them in dreadful squalor, denying them the food, education and language training to prepare them for life in Israel?
At the past decade or so, Israel has admitted more than 250,000 non-Jews from Russia with the justification that their children would be Jews and Israelis. Why the double standard for the Ethiopian Jews?
Yes, the Ethiopian aliyah is costly. It takes special efforts to bring a population from a pre-industrial society to modern Israel. Avraham Neguise, the highly regarded Ethiopian Israeli who has labored for years to keep the spotlight on the Jews still in Ethiopia and when they arrive in Israel, is now the leader of a new political party, Atid Echad.
Neguise's message is one of hope and optimism. He notes that in spite of overwhelming obstacles, in less than a generation, Ethiopian Israeli young people serve with distinction in the army, and more than 3000 Ethiopian Israelis have graduated from the highly competitive Israeli university system and entered professional life.
This aliyah holds enormous potential, especially when the young people are given the extra support and a strong academic education to help them make the extraordinary transition across the centuries.
The window of opportunity, however, for successful absorption is very brief. Neguise says that he has a dream that Ethiopian Israeli youth will fill the universities, not the jails. He knows that if Israeli society does not mobilize to ensure a successful aliyah, including political representation in the Knesset, Israel will suffer the consequences for generations to come. Sadly and needlessly.
The Ethiopian aliyah can be a great one. It needs dedication, effort, education, resources and vision - and it needs these things right now.
Rabbi Yechezkel Stelzer is the founder of New Idan and #2 on the Atid Echad list (Atidechad.org). Ricki Lieberman has worked with Ethiopian Jews in the compounds in Ethiopia and when they arrive in Israel.