During Operation Protective Edge, Aregawi Tesfa was not sure he would live to see the day after the war.
Tesfa fought on the front line in the most dangerous parts of the Gaza Strip, captured Hamas fighters and unfortunately also carried the bodies of young Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting.
But through it all, he knew that if he survived, his own battle was still far from over.
“All through the war I didn’t forget for one minute that when I’m done fighting Hamas, I will have to get back to the struggle to bring my sister to Israel.”
Tesfa’s battle to reunite his family, which has been torn between Ethiopia and Israel for over 10 years, is far from ending. A few days before the war, Tesfa presented his story to the Knesset internal affairs committee. The MKs of the committee were shocked to hear that all of Tesfa’s family lives in Israel while his sister was left behind.
Even though Tesfa’s sister received approval to make aliya from the previous interior minister, MK Eli Yishai, a senior ministry clerk named Mazal Cohen, together with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, prohibited Tesfa’s sister from doing so.
‘There are many similar cases’
After Tesfa presented his story, Cohen replied: “I cannot give my opinion on specific cases without looking into all the data.” MK Pnina Tamano-Shata replied to Cohen’s statement saying: “This [Tesfa’s story] is a specific case, but there are many similar cases – unfortunately it isn’t an unusual story.”
MK Tamano-Shata is spot-on. Over the past year, since the government decided to absolve itself of its responsibility for the remaining Jews of Ethiopia, postings on our Facebook page “The Struggle for Ethiopian Jewry” (facebook.com/ethiopianjewry) have included many similar stories.
Recently, the Israeli media disseminated the story of a commando named Daniel Brihun fighting in Gaza, who succeeded in bringing his wife and daughter to Israel after years of battling the establishment, but no one raised the obvious question: why did he need to struggle for so long, and what about the other Israeli Ethiopians whose efforts to reunite their families failed? We’re talking about families who have been living in Israel for over a decade.
Their men serve in the army, they study in universities and yeshivot, yet they have no one to turn to to salvage their severed families. No one can coherently explain to them why they, their parents and brothers and sisters received permission to come on aliya and are considered Jewish, while one sibling was left behind because they are not.
The Jews in Ethiopia
I had the honor of spending six months with the Jewish communities in Addis Ababa and Gondar. These communities have been abandoned by the Israeli government and by Jewish organizations around the world – the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee outrageously do not permit their volunteers in Ethiopia to be in touch with the local Jews.
The abandoned remnant of Ethiopian Jewry still lives a Jewish life; their synagogues are full during each of the three prayers services every day. Torah classes and Jewish and Zionist activities take place in the synagogues. Many local Jewish Ethiopian teenagers whom I met share one dream – to serve as soldiers in the IDF.
The Jews of Ethiopia left their villages and gave up all their property in order to move to Addis Ababa and Gondar, from where they were told they could fulfill their 2,000-year-old dream of returning to the Holy Land, a dream which they will never forsake. Almost 1,000 of these displaced Jews have died waiting to get permission to make aliya. In just one tragic example, a few weeks ago Mentwaven Asnaka was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Gondar; her passionate dream of seeing her five children and many grandchildren who live in Israel once more before she died will never come true.
The bureaucrats in Israel
In response to the demands of the Ethiopian families torn from their loved ones, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar set up a new committee to look into these cases, headed by Zvi Hauser and Moshe Vigdor.
Sa’ar announced that the committee would complete its mission by July 2014, yet today, over a month past the deadline, no one has any inkling of what the committee is planning to do, and it has not helped one single Jew from Ethiopia reunite with their family in Israel.
Recently, Army Radio journalists Rino Tzror and Yishai Shnerb revealed that this committee hasn’t looked into any of the 4,500 pending requests – which are its responsibility to attempt to solve – due to a feud between the committee and the Finance Ministry.
“I wasn’t surprised to see that nothing has been done, because I am aware that the Israeli government wants to close the door and finish with this aliya. But they can’t ignore that there are many...cases which need to be looked into,” said MK Nachman Shai, who initiated the discussion within the internal affairs committee.
There is still hope and we will keep fighting
The members of the internal affairs committee have declared that “any person of Jewish descent, whether from his father’s or mother’s side, must be permitted to make aliya” and that they will meet with Vigdor and Sa’ar to make sure it’s done. So it’s clear that there is still hope Tesfa will be able to bring his sister to Israel, but after a 10-year struggle with no progress made, it’s not going to be easy.
Once the situation with Hamas stabilizes, the dynamic, growing group of activists for the continuation of aliya for Ethiopian Jewry will prepare to demonstrate against this injustice that is being perpetrated against our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia and Israel. In contrast with our previous, impressive demonstration that took place in August 2013, this time we expect that not only Israeli Ethiopians will participate but also any other Israeli for whom justice is imperative.
As Emperor Haile Selassie said 51 years ago: “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most – that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
We must not stay silent.
The writer is the head of The Struggle for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry and a journalist for mida.org.il.