Majority of recent Ethiopian immigrants to Israel are Christians

The reason for this substantial amount of immigrants identifying as Christians is that their aliyah is considered a humanitarian act, of reuniting family members.

 Most of the Ethiopian olim aren't considered entitled for aliyah according to Israel's Right of Return law, but offered citizenship as first degree relatives of Israeli citizens. Many of them will begin a process of conversion to Judaism after arriving in Israel.  (photo credit: COURTESY OF THE JEWISH AGENCY)
Most of the Ethiopian olim aren't considered entitled for aliyah according to Israel's Right of Return law, but offered citizenship as first degree relatives of Israeli citizens. Many of them will begin a process of conversion to Judaism after arriving in Israel.

Two-thirds of the immigrants from Ethiopia to Israel between 2020 and 2022 identified as Christians, according to official data from the Population and Immigration Authority.

The official data was publicized by The Israeli Immigration Policy Center (IIPC) and was seen by The Jerusalem Post.

It reveals that out of more than 5,000 immigrants from Ethiopia who arrived in Israel as part of Operation Tzur Israel, 3,301 identified as Christians. In contrast, only about 1,773 identified as descendants of Jews, though this wasn’t proved to be true according to Israeli authorities. Notably, none of them were found to be eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return.

The reason for this high number identifying as Christians, is that their aliyah is considered a humanitarian act of family reunification. Therefore, it is now assumed that many members of the “Jewish communities” in Ethiopia are actually not Jewish and practice a different religion.

According to a statement on behalf of the center, a conservative Israeli think-tank, “these findings are consistent with previous reports from the IIPC. The institute’s analysis of data from the Population and Immigration Authority showed that since 2000, only about 10% of Ethiopian immigrants identified as Jews upon their arrival in Israel.”

How the Israeli government is addressing an influx of Ethiopian immigrants

Earlier on Thursday, the Israeli government appointed a special envoy to investigate and then to recommend a solution for the aliyah crisis from Ethiopia. Thousands of Ethiopian citizens claim they are entitled to aliyah but the Israeli government says that aliyah from Ethiopia is at an end.

IIPC director Dr. Yona Cherki commented on these findings in a statement on Wednesday, claiming that “the State of Israel should enable every Jew who wishes to immigrate to Israel to do so. The transit camps in Ethiopia are periodically emptied and refilled, and every time a substantial number of people await their chance to immigrate. Data from the Population and Immigration Authority suggests that if there are individuals in Ethiopia who are entitled to return under the Jewish lineage, they aren’t making the move.

“Conversely, those who are immigrating don’t hold the right to do so,” Cherki said, adding that the new envoy on behalf of the government should “define consistent criteria for immigration to Israel, applicable across all diasporas, in alignment with the Law of Return.”

As mentioned, Aliyah and Integration Minister Ofir Sofer, has appointed Brig.-Gen. (res.) Harel Knafo to spearhead a team that will assess Israel’s current immigration policy concerning Ethiopia on Wednesday. Pending approval from the Civil Service Commission, Knafo and his team will delve into the immigration challenges, particularly focusing on those awaiting aliyah in Addis Ababa and Gondar. They will subsequently submit their findings to Sofer.

Knafo commanded the Inter-Army Command and Staff College, headed the Southern Command, and led the 890th Battalion of the Paratroopers. Earlier this week, Israeli citizens of Ethiopian descent and advocates of Ethiopian Jewish immigration assembled outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. They demanded swift action to safeguard those eligible for aliyah from the turbulent Gondar region.

They pointed out to the Knesset that an astonishing 4,226 individuals from the camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa had filed requests for aliyah. As the situation worsens, particularly in areas like Gondar, those awaiting their journey to Israel face dire threats to their lives.

Last Thursday, Israel carried out a significant rescue operation, evacuating over 200 Israeli and Ethiopian nationals from Ethiopia due to the intensifying conflict between the Ethiopian Army and the FANO militia.

The rescue comprised three planes that transported Israeli citizens, Jewish Agency personnel, Project TEN volunteers, and immigrants. The joint initiative was a collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office and The Jewish Agency, with the security operations managed by the agency’s security officers.

A coalition of advocacy groups supporting Ethiopian Jews voiced their concerns on Thursday. They emphasized, “The Department of Aliyah and Integration seems disconnected from reality.”

They added, “Thousands of Israelis, ranging from soldiers to ordinary citizens, took to the streets recently, expressing their frustrations over the government’s seeming inertia. They’re deeply concerned about our kin caught in the conflict near Gondar. A significant number of Jews are in imminent danger in Ethiopia, accentuated by the recent declaration of a state of emergency.”

Of these, 1,226 Jews have been officially recognized and qualify for immigration. However, despite its obligations, the Israeli government has not been proactive. The aliyah minister’s silence is deafening. His decision to form a committee “to review the matter” seems like a mere tactic to buy time.

A report provided by the advocacy groups underscores the discrepancy between the reported figures and reality. “While news of the rescue operation in Gondar was heartening at first, the truth is only 44 out of the 204 rescued were eligible immigrants; the majority were Israeli citizens.”

The umbrella of organizations advocating for the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews, has said that "while a state of emergency has been declared in Ethiopia, and dozens have been killed and injured near the waiting camp in Gondar, there are those who wish to carry out a selection or, worse, close our gates to Jews who are in real mortal danger.

"At this time, the State of Israel must fulfill its mission in accordance with the Declaration of Independence and the commitment to ensure Israel is a place for all Jews, and swiftly bring those eligible for Aliyah who face an immediate threat to their lives." They cited that the Israeli government, in its decisions 716 and 713, "defined the criteria for the Aliyah of Jews from Ethiopia, notably those who are of Jewish lineage and have relatives in Israel.

"Many are descendants of Ethiopian Jews on their mother's side, meaning they are Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law) as ruled by prominent [late chief rabbis], Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu." They added that in "some cases," those who wish to make aliyah "are descendants of forced converts, who underwent pressures in attempts to change their religion, yet they maintained circumcision and marriage within the community. Nevertheless, all of them undergo a halachic conversion, so there is no question about their Jewishness."

"A representative from the Population Authority, Michal Yosef, reported two months ago in the Knesset that 4,226 aliyah applications were received, of which 1,226 have already been approved. All eligible Aliyah applicants meet the criteria set by the Israeli government, and they have siblings serving the state in the IDF, police, and various public service positions. Those Israelis, who were torn from their families, are waiting for the state to uphold its commitment from years ago and swiftly rescue their relatives from the inferno in Ethiopia."