Ethiopian-Israelis worry that airlift of loved ones won’t get off ground

Many call Netanyahu plan ‘campaign promise’ that highlights lack of serious immigration policy

Youth awaiting immigration to Israel practice social distancing outside the Hatikvah Synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (photo credit: COURTESY OF STRUGGLE TO SAVE ETHIOPIAN JEWRY (SSEJ))
Youth awaiting immigration to Israel practice social distancing outside the Hatikvah Synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Reactions within the Ethiopian-Israeli community to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s stated plan to bring 2,000 more Jews from Ethiopia are mixed.
Some have welcomed the news, although it reminds others of all the family members left behind – and the lack of a consistent government policy.
Netanyahu tweeted on Friday that he had informed his Ethiopian counterpart, Abiy Ahmed, of the plan. He did not mention the fact that the initiative had been floated by Immigration Minister P’nina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian-Israeli.
“I’m glad that I have been granted the right to atone for the injustice that has been done toward thousands of torn families,” Tamano-Shata told The Media Line on Sunday.
“This is a life-saving proposal and a correction for years of injustice. It is a great privilege to unite families torn between continents,” she said. “This is important news for Israelis of Ethiopian descent and for Israel as a whole."
Most Ethiopian-Israelis are members of the “Beta Israel” community, whose members are recognized as Jews according to strict interpretations of Jewish law. As such, they or many of their forbears, most of whom were airlifted to Israel, were allowed to become citizens under its Law of Return.
Of the estimated 14,000 people generally referred to as Jews who remain in Ethiopia, about 57% are the progeny of people who left the Jewish religion, often forcibly, but wish to come to Israel. Although most now lead Jewish lives, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not consider them to be Jewish and the government has generally made it difficult for them to immigrate.
In late summer, Tamano-Shata – the first Israeli cabinet minister of Ethiopian heritage – proposed a plan that would regulate the status of Ethiopian Jews under the Law of Return, opening the gates to those wishing to come. They currently live in dire conditions in compounds in the capital Addis Ababa or in rural Gondar Province.
Most of those requiring Israeli authorization to immigrate have been waiting for years – some for as many as two decades. The reason for this is subject to much controversy within Israel’s Ethiopian community.
Rabbi Sharon Shalom, head of the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, argues that skin color has nothing to do with it.
“With this group in Ethiopia, the issue is not racism. It’s a question of Judaism,” he told The Media Line.
“The ‘old’ Ethiopian Jews like me returned here according to the Law of Return,” he explained. “We are also black and it was no problem.” 
However, Shula Mola, an educator and former chairperson of the Association of Ethiopian-Jews, vehemently disagrees.
“Some people say it is connected to Judaism, but the deeper issue is racism,” she insisted in conversation with The Media Line.
“It is exemplified by the Israeli establishment’s behavior from the very beginning, which questioned the Jewishness of [members of] our community, even if they were completely Beta Israel. This happens to every Ethiopian immigrant and has throughout Israel’s history.”
Regardless, there is consensus among Ethiopian-Israelis that the government must make up its mind.
“This is about politics. If there is a demonstration, the government responds by bringing a few thousand here to placate the Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish community,” Shalom said.
“This is not a holistic solution to bring 2,000 here now, another thousand next year and so on,” he continued. “They [Israeli authorities] work according to public pressure but are not serious about the problem.”   
The government, Shalom says, must come up with a steady policy on the status of those wanting to immigrate. For guidance, he suggests the establishment of a committee that includes various stakeholders, including members of the Beta Israel and Falash Mura communities, Ethiopian-Israeli spiritual leaders and representatives of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
“If they are Jewish, bring them all here now. If you do not believe them, tell them so they can go back to their villages and continue with their lives,” he said, directing his words at Israeli policy-makers. 
Mola agrees that politics plays a role, noting that the prime minister’s tweet came just after footage surfaced showing the leader of a growing anti-Netanyahu protest movement angrily telling an Ethiopian-Israeli policewoman who was arresting him: “I brought your parents to Israel!”
The protest leader, Amir Haskel, is a retired Air Force general who took part in a hurried 1991 airlift of Ethiopians to Israel. He later apologized for his remarks, although they elicited major controversy.
“The issue of Amir Haskel is not specific to him but how we feel [as Ethiopian-Israelis] here with our belongingness constantly questioned,” Mola said.
“In this context, Bibi’s spin is that he knows we feel angry right now, so he wants to connect the community,” she said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He says he is going to bring people who have been left behind, but [that’s a familiar refrain] that doesn’t happen.”
Five years ago, under Netanyahu’s leadership, the government agreed to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel by 2020.
“The bottom line is, if Netanyahu brings the 2,000 people [he mentioned on Twitter], I say that’s a good thing. But I do not believe him,” Mola stated.
“Last time, he said he was going to bring 400 Ethiopian Jews. [This was] close to the [March] election,” she said. “But in the end, he brought just 43 people. He’s playing our community.”
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