“It’s a Pandora’s Box – open it and no one knows what will emerge,” says Asher
Fentahun Seyum, the Jewish Agency’s top official in Gondar, addressing the vexed
question of what to do with the thousands of Ethiopians who consider themselves
Jews, but are not on the official Israel government aliya list. Seyum is the man
who was landed with the mission of carrying out the government decision of
November 2010 to bring the “last” contingent of potential immigrants, some 7,000
of them, to Israel in an operation termed “Wings of the Dove.”
Seyum is a
charismatic 41-year-old who arrived in Israel in 1984 at the age of 13, after an
arduous and dangerfraught trek with his family from Gondar to Sudan. He went to
work with energy and skill, and in less than two years set up an operation that
brought more than 5,000 Gondar Jews to Israel. He pledges to “close shop” by
next Rosh Hashana, when the 1,000 or so left in Gondar are settled in
But what happens then? Some estimates put the number of potential
immigrants who have not been approved for aliya at over 10,000. Several thousand
have left their villages and wait in vain in the Ethiopian capital of Addis
Ababa for the coveted aliya approval. The crux of the problem is the Falash Mura
– the descendants of Ethiopian Jews (called Beta Israel or House of Israel) –
who were forced to convert, or voluntarily converted, to Christianity in the
19th and 20th centuries.
For the average Israeli, Ethiopian Jews appear
to be a homogeneous group. But behind the outward uniformity hides a schism that
splits the community. The Ethiopian Jews who started coming to Israel in the
late 1970s were Beta Israel. They were practicing Jews and fervent Zionists
whose dream was to go up to Jerusalem. A grass-roots movement, encouraged by
activists, saw tens of thousands leave their homes and possessions and embark on
a perilous trek of hundreds of kilometers by foot through the badlands on the
Sudanese border. Eventually arriving at camps in Sudan, they were spirited clandestinely home to Israel by plane and
boat. Many thousands died on the way – beset upon by bandits, disease and
This aliya was pretty much wrapped up by the early 1990s,
culminating in the mass airlift, termed “Operation Shlomo,” from Addis Ababa,
which brought in 14,310 immigrants, jam-packed in jumbo jets and other aircraft,
in less than two days in May 1991. But then a new player entered the arena – the
Falash Mura. Originally Jews, they had left the fold in the past, and now were
not considered halakhically Jewish.
Aliya was no longer the hazardous
enterprise it had been, and Falash Mura began arriving at the camps set up for
the Ethiopian Jews, demanding to be brought to Israel in light of their Jewish
heritage. Various groups began applying pressure to allow the aliya of the
Falash Mura. Eventually the government decided that those Falash Mura who wished
to return to Jewish practice, and those with family in Israel, would be eligible
for aliya, subject to undergoing a rabbinic conversion course on arrival in
Israel. From that point the Falash Mura aliya proceeded apace.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in 1998 that the aliya of Ethiopian
Jews had ended, the flow did not cease and by the next time he assumed office in
2009, at least 30,000 more Falash Mura had arrived.
Most veteran Beta
Israel immigrants are loath to publicly criticize the Falash Mura immigration.
But there is an undercurrent of resentment against them. They did not help Jews
leave Ethiopia during the dangerous decades, even hindering them on their way,
and now its members line up to join a deluxe aliya flight to Israel in
comfortable seats on a modern jetliner.
This is not to say that potential
immigrants in Gondar have it easy. Most have left their villages, sold their
possessions and wait aimlessly, quite often for years, hoping their aliya
applications will be approved. Some of the bureaucratic decisions are
Tegave Jember, 68, whose father was Jewish (his mother was
Christian), has five brothers who immigrated to Israel in 1991 in Operation
Shlomo. He was deemed ineligible for aliya, even though he also has six uncles
living in Israel. Provided with a subsistence job, Jember works in the kitchen
of the Jewish Agency-run community center in Gondar to help him support his wife
and three children.
He tells The Jerusalem Report that he does not wish
to die in Gondar – all he hopes for is to live his remaining years in the Holy
Land with the rest of his family.
Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the
Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, tells the
Report that Jember had been turned down because he married a Christian woman,
while his brothers married Jewish women. She did not respond when asked why he
had not been allowed to immigrate under the family reunification
Seyum is adamant that when this final aliya from Ethiopia is wrapped
up, an appeals procedure should be implemented to deal with cases where justice
was not done. “They are not cattle. Officials could have made mis-takes. At most there would be a few hundred cases. Then we could close shop,” he
declares to The Report.
Jewish Agency officials admit that among the
latest batch of “approved” immigrants are five men who were practicing Christian
priests. Beta Israel immigrants have expressed the fear that some of the
newcomers could attempt to missionize Ethiopian Jews in Israel and that some of
the new immigrants, while passing themselves off as Jews, are believing
Fasil Kassa, 38, has been waiting in Gondar, with thousands
of other Falash Mura, for eight years for his aliya application to be
He sold his farm in a village to the north and since then he,
his wife, Frunus, and their five children have been eking out a meager
existence. He lives off the remains of his savings and income from occasional
hard-to-come-by day jobs in the povertystricken city, which four centuries ago
was the glorious capital of the kings of Gondar.
The family lives in a
cramped one-room mud hovel. Cooking is done outside on open wood fires and there
is no evidence of sanitary facilities.
The Jewish Agency helps out with
meals for the kids at the school it runs and organizes handouts of teff, a grain
used to make injera, the crêpe-like bread that is the staple of Ethiopian meals.
The agency also runs a community center, which includes a synagogue,
kindergarten and kitchen. There is no central housing facility, so potential
immigrants have to make their own accommodation arrangements.
against the door post of his house, a bemused look on his face. Reporters and
photographers are crowding in to snap the family packing their paltry belongings
three days before boarding a flight to Israel. Children in tattered clothing
Kassa’s son Getachew, 17, who speaks Hebrew that he learned
at the agency school, translates for his father, and Fasil tells me that he
can’t believe his eight-year wait is over and that they are about to leave for
Fast-forward two weeks: I arrive at the Jewish Agency’s Ibim
Absorption Center, adjoining Sderot opposite the Gaza Strip, to visit the
immigrants I had last seen on a plane to Israel. As I approach the gate of the
center, a youth, dressed in a spanking new sweatshirt and pants, strides up. It
is Getachew – and an emotional (on my part) reunion ensues.
There is more
than a world of difference between the absorption center and the hovels of
Gondar. The center, formerly a residence for students, looks like a holiday
village, with single-story red-roofed houses set in a parklike
Moshe Bahta, director of the center, takes me to visit the Kassa
family. The mother, Frunus shows me around – living room, kitchen, master
bedroom, children’s room and safe (against rockets) room, which serves as
accommodation for the youngest kids. It’s all sparkling clean, if somewhat
sparsely furnished – they didn’t bring much from Gondar.
between the demeanor and outward appearance of the immigrants back in Gondar and
on their arrival in Israel is striking. In Gondar, their clothing was poor and often torn; some went barefoot or else wore cheap plastic footwear.
confident-looking Kassa walks up, kids in tow at the end of their school day. A
broad smile on his face, he greets me, his “old” friend from
Kassa was one of 237 Jews who arrived October 29 in Tel Aviv on a
special charter flight from Addis Ababa, the largest single group of immigrants
to land in Israel in the last two years, since operation Wings of the Dove
Bahta, 54, tells The Report that he sees his mission as creating
as soft a landing as possible for the immigrants. He shows me one of the houses
that have been made ready for a new group of immigrants due to arrive the next
day. It is identical to the Kassa family home. There is a brand new, large
refrigerator full of goodies, such as frozen chicken and loaves of bread (no
injera – teff is not available in Israel). The sets of plates and cutlery are
brand new as are the chairs, table, sheets, beds and bunk beds – all funded by
the government, Bahta points out.
Bahta was 17 when he joined the Tigray
rebels fighting Ethiopia’s tyrannical Mengistu regime. Wounded twice, he crossed
over to Sudan and managed to make his way to Israel in 1980. He says the
immigrant children are enrolled in school and the adults are being taught Hebrew
and will get vocational training. Seasonal work in agriculture and factories in
the area will be offered to the immigrants.
Bahta says there is a
remnant of 500 to 1,000 Jews, not Falash Mura, still waiting in Tigray for
permission to immigrate. He complains that all appeals to the Interior Ministry
to allow them to come to Israel have fallen on deaf ears.
He managed to
get the whole 600-person capacity absorption facility up and running since
September 1, and it will be completely full by year’s end. The other Wings of
the Dove immigrants have been settled throughout the country.
I left Ibim
confident that Bahta and his team were indeed providing the immigrants with a
As I drove out of the facility I switched on the radio and
learned that Hamas master terrorist Ahmed Jabari had been assassinated, which
set off Operation Pillar of Defense, the mini-war against Hamas in Gaza in
mid-November. I immediately phoned Bahta to alert him and he reassured me that I
should not worry, as they were prepared.
Indeed, the center is on the
outskirts of Sderot and well within range of rockets and mortars from Gaza.
However, an Iron Dome anti-missile battery was already in place in the open
field below the center.
After the cease-fire with Hamas came into effect
in late November, Bahta relates that the immigrants had not been fazed by the
rocket barrages fired at Sderot, even though some missiles landed near the
absorption center. The newcomers cheered when the Iron Dome battery sent off its
interceptor missiles. And when it came to following Home Front Command safety
procedures to run to the safe rooms when under attack, they did so in perfect
order and without panic.
“They reacted better than veteran Israelis,”
Bahta says proudly of his charges.