Two planes carrying 450 Ethiopian immigrants arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday, marking what the government is calling the end of Ethiopian aliya.
The immigrants, members of the Falash Mura and descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity around a century ago, were greeted by relatives already living in Israel, during a ceremony that government ministers, MKs and senior Jewish Agency officials attended.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver called the end of Operation Dove’s Wings, which has brought 7,000 Ethiopians to Israel since 2010, a “historic event” and promised that the government intended to “do everything in its power to resettle these new immigrants in the best way possible.”
Concurrent with the official celebration, several hundred Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to protest what they said was the exclusion of first-degree relatives from making aliya. Police estimates placed the number of demonstrators at around 300.
Some protesters carried signs bearing the slogan “A Jewish and Zionist government does not cease the immigration of Jews,” while others held aloft pictures of members of their nuclear families who were not admitted to the Jewish state.
Protest organizers Avraham Neguise and Uri Perednik told The Jerusalem Post that they had come to “oppose the closing of aliya from Ethiopia while there are still Jews left behind, most of whom have been parted from their brothers, sisters, children and parents who have been living in Israel for many years.”
He added that they had also gathered “to oppose the decision made by the Jewish Agency to take the Torah scroll from the Jewish community in Gondar and to close down their synagogue.”
At Ben-Gurion Airport, friends and relations who had not seen each other in years embraced tearfully as the newly arrived immigrants passed through customs, flanked by journalists snapping pictures. Small children handed out candies as the immigrants were led to seats to hear speeches extolling Israel’s efforts to bring home Ethiopian Jewry.
Several Ethiopians already living in Israel expressed their excitement at seeing relatives that some of them had not seen for nearly a decade. One man, now a soldier in the Kfir infantry brigade, told the Post that he was incredibly happy that he would be seeing his sister for the first time in “nearly eight years.”
Dinkeh, a middle-aged woman surrounded by her children, sat several seats away from her sister, whom she likewise had not seen for eight years. She said that her mother was still in Ethiopia and she was “sorry” about that, but that “today I have happiness in my heart.”
“Thank God,” Dinkeh said.
“Everything is good.”
Suidnes, a 14-year-old new immigrant, beamed with pride, saying, “I have family here, it’s good [and] I’m happy.”
“By completing the Journey of Operation Dove’s Wings, we close the circle on a journey that began 3,000 years ago,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told the crowd, citing the origins of Ethiopia’s Jewish community during the biblical period.
“Bringing to Israel the most ancient [exilic] community in the history of the Jewish people is for me very special,” Sharansky later told the Post, reminiscing about reading the story of the first Ethiopian exodus to Israel during his incarceration in a Soviet jail.
Asked about the end of mass aliya from the African nation, Sharansky replied that Israel was “finished with this very special approach” and that Ethiopia would be treated the same as any other country.
“All our main people will stay [and] will continue dealing with every case. There is a special exceptions committee from the Interior Ministry, which will also continue those cases that have already been refused,” he said, referring to a body the ministry had convened to look over lists of previously disqualified Ethiopians.
“Everybody is who eligible will be able to come, but this way we can guarantee that only those who are eligible, like in other countries, are able to come. When you are bringing the whole community, it is very difficult to guarantee,” Sharansky said.
Not everyone at the ceremony was as upbeat, however.
Yesh Atid MKs Shimon Solomon and Pnina Tamnu- Shata, both Ethiopian immigrants, critiqued the claim that Ethiopian aliya was finished.
“There are families that are still there, and this is intolerable,” Solomon told the gathering.
“The public statements of ‘closing aliya’ are not possible and should not be possible,” he continued. “No organization, neither the Jewish Agency nor the State of Israel, can close the possibility of making aliya, because if there is one Jew, for some reason or another, whom we could not reach, [it’s not over]. That’s why we need to correct those statements – we can say that we’re through with the long lists, but you can’t say that we are ‘closed.’ The State of Israel did not close the aliya gates in any other country, which makes this seem very bad indeed.”
Speaking directly to the children of the new immigrants, Tamnu-Shata said she hoped they would “experience the same kind of aliya that I experienced, as a bettering experience and a dream-fulfilling, inspiring experience.”
She recalled that “on the way back, on the plane, it took me back to that moment in the past. I couldn’t help but cry. To remember the soldiers, the candy being thrown – I talked about this in my first speech in the Knesset. That’s the Jewish nation, that’s the Jewish inspiration, to be responsible for one another.... God brought us here together from all corners of the world, and today, the State of Israel closes a very important chapter, one of the most splendid of chapters – not only locally, but internationally as well.”
While saying that Wednesday’s flights were “an important and massive moment,” she added that “we know there are cases of people left behind, separated from their families.
We will work for them, help them, those rare cases, and not just from... a Jewish point of view, because the Jewish heart can’t stay indifferent... to humanitarian matters.”
Speaking to the Post, Solomon said that Wednesday’s flights were “not quite an end.”
“That entire concept smells bad,” he said. “Ending an aliya. I don’t even want to say what word that reminds me of.
Because no country ‘ends’ aliya. You can take a break, wait – no need to make [sweeping] statements. For example, this current aliya of 450 olim, there are families of first-degree [relatives] who did not come. It’s not logical, not religious, not humanitarian to split a family like that and close the aliya.”
Still, the lawmaker took issue with the protesters’ complaint about shutting the last refugee camp in Gondar, asserting that the Interior Ministry would be checking individual cases and that “if someone deserved to make aliya, you check his case, and he comes. You don’t need the infrastructure.”
“We need to make sure that the Interior Ministry committee will do a quick, efficient and professional job,” Tamnu- Shata told the Post after her speech. “We don’t need to look only at who’s Jewish and who’s not. A mother who was separated from her children is a humanitarian issue; we need to bring her. We brought thousands and thousands, so now that there are only hundreds, we won’t finish the job? We are Jews, we’re not supposed to be close-minded. I’m sure it’s not God’s intention.”
Fellow Yesh Atid MK and American immigrant Rabbi Dov Lipman, meanwhile, condemned the “pomp and circumstance” of the celebrations at Ben-Gurion Airport while there were those in Ethiopia who were “crying because now they have to appeal to a committee of the Interior Ministry to try to get to Israel. I believe that the government policy should be that if we brought a direct sibling or a direct relative – meaning a parent or a brother or sister or a child – to Israel, it is our responsibility to bring the rest of that immediate family.
I’m not talking about distant cousins.”
However, Eliezer Sandberg, chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, had a different view of events.
After getting off one of the planes with the new immigrants, he told the Post that critics of the government policy regarding Ethiopian aliya were speaking about “relatives of relatives of relatives.”
“I believe we all have relatives of relatives of relatives who don’t [meet] the criteria [for aliya]. I think it’s a mistake to blend together the joy of the return and the closing of the operation from Ethiopia with the personal issues of some people,” Sandberg said. “People who belong to the Jewish people in Ethiopia are here and their families are here, and I think this is what we should be all proud of.”
Natan Galili contributed to this report.
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