After being stranded in Gondar for 12 years awaiting permission to make aliyah, Emey will be arriving in Israel on February 13. She’ll be coming with her husband and three of her children, finally to be reunited with an older daughter who was allowed to move here 10 years ago and whom she hasn’t seen since. It should be a day of unmitigated joy.
It won’t be.
When I met Emey and her husband Melkamu three weeks ago in their one-room home built of mud andstraw, where they’ve lived since leaving their countryside village more than a decade ago, she was in tears.
“How can they do this to me?” she sobbed, begging for my help. “They’re making me leave three of my children behind!”
The story is this: The most recent government decree regarding the remnant of Ethiopian Jewry languishing in Gondar and Addis Ababa is to bring a thousand of them to Israel in 2018. That‘s the good news. The bad news is twofold.
Firstly, even the full implementation of this decision would leave another 7,500 of our brethren behind, all of whom have been waiting to make aliyah for somewhere from eight to 22 years in the harshest of conditions. Secondly, the criteria determining who may and may not come include a condition that is callous and cruel. Those with children already in Israel may come and bring their unmarried offspring with them, but their married children – and thus their grandchildren – must be left behind.
A Sophie’s choice, only this time it’s the State of Israel that’s demanding it be made. In the name of family reunification, we are tearing families apart – Emey’s and Melkamu’s among them. Their two married children will not be permitted to move here with them.
Some background: In 2013, Israel declared it had fulfilled its historic mission of bringing the entirety of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. That declaration, however, was only in reference to those whose Jewish lineage was maternal. It did not relate to those of patrilineal Jewish descent nor to the thousands whose children, parents, brothers or sisters who were already here but had been left behind for reasons not sufficiently clear.
Two years later, in response to appeals based on humanitarian considerations, the government decided that it would permit all those of Jewish ancestry to be brought to Israel if they a) had first-degree relatives in Israel who requested they be allowed to come, b) had arrived in Gondar or Addis Ababa prior to 2010, c) appear on the community’s membership list, and d) declare their intention to convert to Judaism. It is estimated there are some 8,500 who fall into this category.
Though written into that decision that its implementation was to begin within four months and completed within five years, it would take until 2017 for the first of the new immigrants to arrive, and even then the quota was capped at 1,300. A full year would elapse before any further action was initiated. Finally, in 2018, it was agreed that another thousand could come this year, but in accordance with the criteria noted above that were far more stringent than those stipulated in the original 2015 decision. Thus, the separation of families now underway.
The rationale for this draconian ruling? Without the imposition of such restrictions, the argument goes, the Jewish state will be flooded with non-Jews and challenged by the social and economic burden of absorbing them. A rather spurious position under the circumstances. Though indeed the prevailing rabbinic opinion is that most of the 8,500 who are waiting to come are not halachically Jewish (as well as general recognition that some are married to others with no Jewish roots), the overwhelming majority of community members maintain a strictly traditional Jewish lifestyle and 95% of them convert under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate within a year of their aliyah.
IN THE meantime, the vast majority of those whom we have kept waiting – even after approving their entry to Israel in principle – are living in a state of poverty unimaginable in the 21st century. Most are living in the sort of single-room, dirt-floor hovels in which I met Emey and Melkamu. It is not unusual for a family of six to occupy a space of approximately 16 square meters with no running water, gas or electricity, sharing with their neighbors common latrines and fire pits for cooking.
Almost no community members have any regular work, sustaining themselves as day laborers and subsisting with the assistance of minimal funds sent to them by relatives in Israel, many of whom are barely able to eke out a living for themselves.
Consequently, much of the community suffers from malnutrition. A comprehensive medical study conducted two years ago by an international team of doctors determined that of the 850 children in the Gondar community up to the age of five, 462 were severely malnourished, potentially leading to irreversible mental and physical damage.
Community members also suffer from inadequate medical attention in general. There is no universal health insurance in Ethiopia and the cost of an appointment with a doctor, never mind that of the tests, medicines or procedures that might be required, are beyond the means of those in need.
Exacerbating all of this is the fact that community members are essentially “stateless.” The circumstances under which they left their villages and “settled” in Gondar or Addis Ababa on their way to Israel are such that they never received identity cards as local residents, meaning they are not entitled to even the meager rights and rations others living in similar conditions receive. They are also trapped where they are, as the lands they left behind have long been taken over by others.
Of course, even if they could return to their villages they wouldn’t, as the only land they are interested in returning to is the land of their forebears. The services they conduct three times a day – with an attendance and a fervor that would be the envy of most any synagogue in the world – conclude with a resounding rendition of “Am Yisrael Hai” followed by a passionate reprise of “Hatikvah.”
That is also the name of the congregation in Gondar. And listening to them sing reverently of that hope, in their makeshift synagogue, only partially roofed, with its dirt floor, bare metal benches and dim lighting, is at once a sobering, humbling and inspirational experience.
It is also the cause for profound embarrassment. The flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv takes all of four-and-a-half hours. Ethiopian Airlines flies back and forth twice a day. The price of a one-way ticket is less than $350. The Jewish Agency is prepared to bear the cost. So why are they still there? And why are we in the business of tearing families apart?
We owe Emey and Melkamu an answer. And we owe it to ourselves – and to all those who are yet to be reunited with their loved ones – to ensure that when the current chapter of Zionist history is written, it not be recorded as this generation’s Yemenite Children Affair of 70 years ago. Making certain of that is our collective responsibility.
Emey implored me to help her. In her name, I am imploring you as well.
The writer is deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel and a member of the directorate of the Ethiopian National Project, organizations committed to bringing home the remnant of Ethiopian Jewry and their successful integration into Israeli society. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org for ways of getting involved with the cause.
The Jewish Agency is the ongoing story of Israel and the Jewish people. “Family Matters” tells that as it is, one chapter at a time.
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