Jewish Ethiopian kids in Ethiopia 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte)
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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.