Evoking the large aliya operations of decades past, in 2010 the government stepped up plans for Wings of the Dove to bring the last remaining Jews in Ethiopia to Israel.

In the past three years, at the rate of around 200 people a month, some 7,000 Ethiopians have been airlifted to Israel.

This apparently wraps up one of the iconic chapters of aliya, the ingathering of Ethiopian Jews to the Land of Israel.

The process has, however, at times been painful and fraught with controversy.

The original aliya of Ethiopian Jews who came from rural villages ended in 1991. At the time, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was informed that numerous Falash Mura, or Jews who had converted to Christianity, also desired to come to Israel.

Shamir and his successor, Yitzhak Rabin, commissioned studies of the issue that examined whether they qualified for aliya under the Law of Return. The Chief Rabbinate determined that they did not. Nevertheless, American Jewish groups, particularly the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), have been active in helping the Falash Mura to make aliya.

In 1996, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs urged the Israeli government “to take all necessary measures, including more intensive discussions with the Ethiopian government, to accelerate the movement to Israel of those Falash Mura near the Addis Ababa compound.”

In 1998, Binyamin Netanyahu’s first government brought around 4,000 Ethiopians to Israel and declared the immigration over. As estimates of the number of Falash Mura desiring to make aliya grew to 20,000, however, a decision was made in 2003 to bring the rest to Israel.

At the time it was estimated the cost could amount to 5 percent of the state budget, some $2 billion over 10 years.

This set in motion a struggle among the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Shas, which had always championed their aliya, and various NGOs.

Over the years a great deal of confused information was disseminated about the aliya. For instance, some reports argued that people were being denied permission to immigrate despite their mother being Jewish, arguing that they suffered discrimination as opposed to Russian Jews; this ignored the fact that immigration of Falash Mura was never carried out under the Law of Return but under the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law and family reunification.

The immigrants arriving since 2003 have had to undergo a process of conversion in Israel. Their absorption has been plagued by numerous bureaucratic fumblings in Ethiopia that led to families being split, followed by the hardships of integration in Israeli society.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky journeyed to Ethiopia and on Monday gave the keys of the agency compound in Gondar that had served the Falash Mura to the local municipality.

“Jews lived in Gondar for 2,500 years,” Sharansky declared. “Today we bring to an end a journey that spans thousands of years – the conclusion of Operation Wings of a Dove.”

The declaration of an “end” to the aliya, which has seen the Ethiopian-Israeli community grow to an estimated 130,000 souls, raises serious questions. In the 1990s, a similar “end” was declared and those messages were repeated in 2007. Each time, the public was presented with various numbers of Falash Mura who remained behind.

In November 2008, NACOEJ claimed there were still 8,700 people who might be eligible for aliya. Today, as the compound is closed, there are still those who claim that thousands of potential olim are being left behind.

While the aliya from Ethiopia has been a positive chapter in Israel’s history, the immigration and absorption of the Falash Mura has been wracked with problems associated with their integration and conversion.

Wrapping up the aliya is in everyone’s best interests. Some NGOs have expressed intentions to expand their operations in Ethiopia to serve other non-Jewish groups, with medical clinics or other services. That is a good thing. But those who remain in Ethiopia and still seek to migrate to Israel should not be given false hope.

The government must support the growing Ethiopian- Jewish community here, speed up the process of conversion for the new Falash Mura immigrants and invest in job skills training and education programs.

Those who fought for aliya from Ethiopia should refocus their resources on helping those who are here, so that Wings of the Dove can go down in history as a resounding success.

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