Ethiopian Jewish immigrants leave Ben-Gurion Airport in 2011..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Although some have declared the Ethiopian Aliya over, it is clear that it is not complete. It is true that although most of those who left their Ethiopian villages and registered in either 2003 or 2010 to make aliya have come to Israel, but there are still approximately 3,000 in Gondar and 1,800 in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, who are desperately waiting.
These are not people who recently decided to leave Ethiopia. Their dream has shaped the mission of their lives for many years.
While some may not be Jews based on standards of halacha, these are people who live as Jews, study as Jews, pray as Jews and whose mother or father is Jewish. Those who are not yet recognized as Jews are prepared to convert. Most have first-degree relatives who received permission to make aliya in the recent past and have become contributing members of Israeli society.
Some of those who did not receive permission for aliya were rejected because their mother was not Jewish – even though they met the conditions of the Law of Return which permits those with a Jewish father to immigrate. Others were summarily rejected without being given a reason for being denied the right to join their families in Israel. Certainly, Israel has the right to reject applicants for good cause, but the individuals should be entitled to a know the rationale – if only to be able to provide evidence that the rejection was based on information that was in error. Recognizing the problems inherent in this situation, the Knesset established a committee to examine the circumstances of those who were “left behind.” Originally, it was anticipated that this committee would be able to complete its work by July 2014. Now, we are told that its mandate is being extended until December.
In the meantime Jews living in Ethiopia are suffering. Most have no jobs because they left their occupations and homes behind in the villages far from Gondar and Addis Ababa. They live in horrid conditions.
They live in uncertainty. All they have is their dreams. Until recent years the world Jewish community reached out to them. There were visits of solidarity.
There was direct support from agencies, including many communal federations in the Diaspora. Most of this aid has now vanished. It is no wonder that these individuals feel abandoned.
There are many who have observed that the war in Gaza has seriously wounded Israel’s economy and state that discussions of resolving the issue of those waiting in Ethiopia must be delayed again. Budget projections made earlier in the year are no longer relevant. Ministries that may have had the elasticity to absorb new immigrants who will require extraordinary support are suffering slashes to their budgets.
They find it difficult to serve the current citizens of Israel without the additional challenge of serving the needs of those coming from Ethiopia. The pain of meager existence in Ethiopia is now compounded by the uncertainty of the realization of their dreams.
Yet, the damage from the Gaza war will not last forever. The economy will certainly improve. With that anticipation, I wish to make a modest proposal: The current committee that is considering exceptions should finish its work without delay and definitively determine the names of the overwhelming majority of those on the 2003 and 2010 lists who will be given the right to make aliya – without respect to funding their aliya or absorption. Concurrently with this determination a realistic projection should be made by the relevant ministries as to how many Ethiopian olim they can support each month in a sensitive time-frame – understanding that lives are at stake and a schedule should be developed. Such a process and decision will give those who have been waiting – some for over a decade – as well as the Israeli government a sense of certainty that will let them live with the reality of the present and have a realistic vision of their future.
The author is a rabbi, president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) – and a recent immigrant to Israel.