This is a gripping tale about the “re-Jew-venation” of one of our ancient Hebrew tribes, and the ability of our Israeli nation to dramatically intervene in history, with an ominous African civil war thrown in for good measure. But our story first begins with one little girl.
Two months ago, 10-year-old Ruth Mulugeta Tesfaye, a resident of the Ethiopian Jewish refugee camp in Gondor, began to have chest pains. She was brought to the local hospital by her parents and diagnosed with a massive growth on her heart. Ruth was then taken to the main hospital in the capital of Addis Ababa, where doctors confirmed the diagnosis but informed her family that they were not equipped to perform the surgery necessary to save her life.
Ruth’s mother, Ambanesh Tekeba Biru placed a frantic call to Avraham Neguise in Israel. Avraham – who in his youth was a shepherd – made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1985 and is a former member of the Knesset from the Likud party, serving in the Knesset from 2015-2019, where he was head of Immigration and Diaspora Affairs. Since his arrival in Israel, Neguise has been a champion of the Ethiopian cause and a model of personal achievement. He has a PhD in Education and earned a law degree as well, which he said he pursued specifically to help fight for the reunification of his people. Indeed, Neguise once used his Knesset vote to delay the passing of the State budget in order to compel the government to honor its commitment to the Beta Yisrael, a courageous and successful gambit that, ironically, would ultimately result in him being forced out of the party.
Avraham knew Ambanesh well, as she had served as chairperson of Hatikva, the umbrella organization that took charge of overseeing the Jewish institutions in Gondar when the Jewish Agency left there in 2013. “My daughter is going to die,” cried Ambanesh, “unless she gets help now.”
Neguise reached out to a friend and long-time supporter of Save a Child’s Heart, an amazing Israeli humanitarian organization dedicated to saving the lives of critically-ill children suffering from heart disease, in countries where access to pediatric heart care is limited or nonexistent. Founded in 1996 and based out of Wolfson Hospital in Holon, SACH has saved more than 6000 children from around the world in desperate need of help, particularly those from Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq, Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. In addition, SACH helps to train doctors from third-world countries in the latest methods of cardiac care.
SACH immediately pledged to help Ruth, and she and Ambanesh were flown to Israel where Ruth underwent surgery two weeks ago. The surgery was successful, the growth was removed from her heart, and she is steadily recuperating.
But now, mother and daughter face a new crisis: will they be allowed to stay in Israel, the country of their dreams, or will they be sent back to Ethiopia?
IN GONDAR, the center of Ethiopia’s historic Jewish community, 10,000 members of Beta Yisrael wait anxiously to immigrate to the Jewish state.
They have come, often on foot, from numerous villages and towns and they study Hebrew and Jewish law while observing a Jewish lifestyle under the guidance of a Jewish Agency-appointed rabbi. Formerly known as the Falash Mura, they are descendants of Jews who were converted to Christianity, often by force, by Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ironically, it was a converted Jew, Henry Aaron Stern, who began this effort to Christianize the Beta Yisrael in 1860 and many of these people converted to escape persecution by the Christian majority. Indeed, then-Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared in 2002 that the Falash Mura had converted out of fear and threats of violence and therefore should be considered Jews.
Yosef, in keeping with the earlier opinion of the Radbaz (Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra, a leading Halachic authority born in Spain in 1479, who lived in Fez, Cairo and Safed) had already affirmed in 1973 that the Ethiopian community was Jewish, the descendants of the Tribe of Dan. More than 100,000 members of Beta Yisrael would be brought to Israel over four decades, in mass airlifts such as Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, which was greatly facilitated by the American government under President George H. Bush. Their community now totals more than 160,000 souls.
The Beta Yisrael came to Israel either under the auspices of the Law of Return, which allows for family reunification; or because their maternal genealogical line identifies them as halachic Jews.
But at least 10,000 of the descendants of Jews still remain in Gondar and Addis Ababa. Many of them have been waiting since 1999 when a list of eligible immigrants was compiled and approved by the Israeli government, which pledged in 2015 to bring them all here within five years. All of them have a relative already in Israel, and many of the families have been cruelly torn apart by their forced separation. Their situation has now become even more critical, due to a burgeoning civil war currently taking place in Ethiopia. Forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are challenging the government, creating a tense and unstable environment that can deteriorate at any moment.
This Sunday, the cabinet will meet and hopefully approve the entrance to Israel of 5000 members of the community. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata – the first Ethiopian-born woman to enter the Knesset – are working hard to secure their immigration. But more and more people are asking, “why not bring all of them home?!” As one of the people at a recent protest plaintively noted: “One of the fundamental missions of the State of Israel is to be the guardian of the entire Jewish People, wherever they may live. That is both our privilege and our promise; how can we not honor it?”
Meanwhile, Ambanesh sits and waits, both relieved and distraught. Her daughter’s life has been saved, but she is worried that once Ruth is finished with her treatment and released from medical care, they will both be forced to return to Ethiopia – even though they are on the approved list to move here and start their new lives. But sending them back would not only be a theater of the absurd, it would send a disheartening message to all those long-suffering Ethiopians seeking freedom and the chance to live as Jews in a Jewish state.
History sends us crises as well as opportunities. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to do the right thing, to bring all the Ethiopian Jews home, and to proclaim that for us, too, Black Lives Matter.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.