Ethiopian protesters .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last week, over 1,000 protesters of Ethiopian-Israel descent stood for hours under the blazing sun just a few meters from the Prime Minister’s Office, hoping that their cries of pain would penetrate the stone walls of the adjacent building and the stone hearts of those who sit inside. The crowd was comprised primarily of family members with loved ones in Ethiopia that they have not seen in over a decade. They came to protest the government’s failure to implement its decision going back to 2015, to bring the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.
The protesters who cried, “Bibi, promises are meant to be kept,” are used to years of unfulfilled promises, which began even before they arrived in the promised land. During their immigration, representatives from the Ministry of Interior separated families and consoled them with the same mantra, “In just a few weeks, your (fill in the blank – sisters, mother, sons, etc.) will be brought to Israel and be reunited with you,” yet 10, 15 and in some cases 20 years later, these families are still waiting for the government to fulfill its promises.
The approximately 8,000 members of the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia are descendants of Jews who underwent forced conversion to Christianity more than a century ago and who have since returned to strict adherence to Jewish practice. Over two decades ago, these individuals left their villages and gathered in temporary camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa, to await immigration to Israel. While almost all their family members received approval to immigrate to Israel, these 8,000 were left behind. They suffer from harassment from their Christian neighbors due to their Jewish background, yet are steadfast in their observance of Jewish law and custom.
Until 2015, the government brought to Israel Ethiopians of Jewish lineage from the mother’s side. A decision that was unanimously passed on November 15, 2015, promised to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel, including those who have a Jewish lineage from the father’s side.
The implementation of this decision, though, has been stalled, and the two individuals primarily responsible for that are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Deri. Excuses arise from behind government walls that there is no budget in order to carry out this decision, but the decision passed under the leadership of Netanyahu, with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon participating in the discussions. Minister Kahlon has also stated since that the problem is not the budget; it is the government that needs to approve the immigration and the budget will be allocated.
It is not too difficult to conclude that budget claims are just an excuse. As MK Omer Bar-Lev asked during a February 12 State Control hearing in the Knesset on the topic of the Ethiopian immigration, “Since when is immigration to Israel determined by a quota in the budget?” An OECD report that was published on March 11, 2018 reported that, “Israel’s economy continues to register remarkable macroeconomic and fiscal performance. Growth is strong and unemployment low and falling.” Certainly budget constraints cannot be the answer.
Which begs the question, then why is it that nearly three years after the government unanimously approved to bring the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel, their families in Israel and supporters are still protesting a decision that has not been implemented?
The real question that must be asked, is why is an individual from Europe with one Jewish grandparent from the side of his father allowed to immigrate to Israel, together with his non-Jewish wife and children, but an Ethiopian, who has a Jewish father and five siblings already living in Israel, who adheres to Jewish observance and will even undergo what is known as a giyur lechumra once in Israel, is not allowed to immigrate?
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How can we Israeli citizens remain silent to what is an absolute injustice, that goes against the values that the Zionist state was founded on? When 8,000 members of our own people are begging for acceptance, have proven their return to Judaism and are suffering because of it, have received government promises yet are still rejected, we must demand that our leaders take accountability for this injustice.
I therefore turn to Netanyahu and ask him to step forward and bring closure to this issue, as he has promised to do countless times. Should he abandon the 8,000 remaining Jews of Ethiopia who are knocking on the doors of the promised land, this will be a serious disgrace to his name for which he will bear the responsibility and a tremendous grievance by the state that generations to come will not forget.The writer immigrated to Israel from the US seven years ago and is the spokesperson to foreign media for the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah advocacy organization.
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