In November 1984, the State of Israel initiated Operation Moses to extract thousands of Ethiopian Jews who, fleeing civil war and famine, had journeyed on foot through the deserts of the Horn of Africa into Sudan.
In total, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, or Beta Israel, were brought on aliyah to Israel from Sudan, via Europe, and would be followed by tens of thousands more in Operation Solomon in 1991 and the remainder in the 1990s.
After these waves of immigration, their brethren – known then as the Falash Mura but today as the descendants of Jews – who had converted under pressure to Christianity at the end of the 19th century, were also brought to Israel following the advocacy of activist groups and rulings of the Chief Rabbinate.
Today, amid a new and ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, efforts are again afoot to bring the remainders of these communities to Israel, and in accordance with a recent government decision, bring an end to mass emigration from Ethiopia.
On November 28, against the background of the civil war and deteriorating conditions for the community of Jews and descendants of Jews in Addis Ababa and Gondar, the government passed decision No. 713.
The resolution allowed for the immigration of up to 3,000 more people waiting to come to Israel, while stating that if more than this number are found to meet the criteria the government would need to pass a new resolution to appropriate the funds needed to bring them to Israel.
Critically, the government decision also required the establishment of a committee to evaluate the immigration requests of all those who remain in Ethiopia and seek to come to Israel.
The number of those remaining has been a matter of dispute for many years. In 2010, a list was drawn up and accepted by Israeli authorities of around 9,500 people from the community previously known as Falash Mura but now referred to as descendants of Jews.
The overwhelming majority of this group were of paternal Jewish descent, and since their ancestors converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century, are not eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return and were not included in the 2005 ruling of Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar to bring to Israel matrilineal Ethiopian descendants of Jews.
Instead, they immigrate to Israel under family reunification laws approved through the Interior Ministry.
In 2015, the government passed resolution No. 716 to bring all remaining members of this group to Israel, and around 4,500 have arrived since then.
The decision made earlier last month relates to the 5,000 remaining members of the community, and of them, those who have first-degree relatives in Israel and fulfill other conditions will be allowed to come to Israel.
Yet there is also a group of around 5,300 people from the Gojjam region who claim Jewish descent, who left their villages and went to Gondar only at a later stage after the lists had already been compiled.
Kessim (Ethiopian-Jewish spiritual leaders) and community elders together with other experts researched and investigated their background and concluded that over 90% of this group were of maternal Jewish descent, though they had converted to Christianity later than other groups in the mid-20th century.
Senior religious-Zionist rabbis such as Rabbi Yaakov Medan, Rabbi Re’em Hacohen and others have called for this group to be brought to Israel as well.
And some activists say that natural growth of the entire community since the lists were submitted in 2010 means that there are several thousand more people who might be eligible for immigration now.
FORMER LIKUD MK Avraham Neguise, who was instrumental in forcing through decision 716 in 2015, says he is concerned that the criteria for determining who may come to Israel will once again perpetuate the phenomenon of people eligible to immigrate but are again left behind.
The criteria of the latest decision allow someone who is eligible to come to Israel to bring with them married spouses, their minor children and single, unmarried adult children who do not have their own children, even if those people are not of Jewish descent owing to intermarriage among the community.
Neguise says, however, that leaving out the married children from those eligible for immigration means that when those eligible arrive in Israel, they will once again have first-degree relatives in Ethiopia, which will pave the way for future claims.
It would be better, argues Neguise, to include the married children to forestall this future problem and enable the long saga of Ethiopian immigration to finally be ended.
“Parents will never give up seeing their children, so the government is again creating this situation with the most recent decision,” says Neguise.
The most recent government decision was passed at the end of November as a matter of urgency due to the unstable security situation in Ethiopia, and concerns for the well-being of the community.
Their risk from the violence of the civil war is not thought to be immediate, but the declining economic situation, rise in food prices and the difficulties receiving remittances from family members in Israel due to the fighting have meant that the communities’ welfare situation has deteriorated significantly in recent months.
Interior Ministry officials who are supposed to go to Ethiopia to evaluate the claims of those requesting to immigrate to Israel have yet to leave.
A spokesperson for the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry did not say why the officials have yet to fly to Ethiopia, but said they are still preparing and will likely depart in January.
In recent days, the Ethiopian government says it has pushed back the Tigrayan rebel forces and recaptured the strategic towns of Kombolcha and Dessie, which control access to a critical highway leading to Djibouti and its seaports through which most of Ethiopia’s imports and exports are delivered.
Joseph Feit, chairman of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, says the Addis Ababa and Gondar communities have been “hit by a perfect storm of calamities: plague in the form of COVID, civil war and local civil disturbances.”
Feit, whose organization is on the ground distributing food, COVID-19 vaccines and other necessities, says food prices have escalated dramatically, and notes that some heads of households have been forcibly conscripted into the Ethiopian army.
“I’ve been engaged in this work for three decades and the community is in the worst shape I’ve seen since Operation Solomon. Yet the Israeli government, rather than implementing its decision immediately as required by law, is finding excuses for delay,” says Feit.
He was scathing of the Interior Ministry for the delay in sending its personnel to begin evaluations, and was also critical of other major Jewish and Zionist organizations whom he says would not ignore “a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude affecting a non-African Jewish community.”
Zamena Wube, a local leader of the Jewish community in Gondar, said through a translator that the community was very frustrated with the current situation, and feels helpless.
“[Sick and elderly] community members continue to die before getting to Israel to see their relatives, as do the relatives themselves in Israel,” he laments.
“We are requesting and demanding that the government of Israel carry out and implement its decisions to bring those waiting to Israel.”
AWAY FROM the immediate concerns, there are still longtime opponents of continued immigration from Ethiopia who are equally opposed to the latest decision.
They insist that those remaining in Addis Ababa and Gondar are not Jewish and deny they have any connection to the Jewish people at all.
They also argue that allowing further groups to immigrate will continue a cycle of what they describe as never-ending immigration from Ethiopia to Israel of non-Jews.
One such opponent is Amital Bareli, director of the hardline religious-Zionist organization Chotam.
“Every aliyah of immigrants creates new requests for mass aliyah of the relatives of those who are already in Israel for humanitarian purposes, so in this way every resident of Ethiopia could immigrate to Israel,” says Bareli.
“Government decisions over the years have always been accompanied, as they are these days, by a campaign that says ‘this time these are really the last ones,’ while afterward, the next campaign for the next group of ‘really the last one’ begins, which the State of Israel must bring to Israel.
“This is a project which is flooding Israel with immigrants, without any connection to Israel and/or Judaism.”
Neguise rejects these allegations.
He notes that under the terms of decision 716, candidates requesting immigration to Israel on the basis of family reunification laws must prove they are of Jewish descent.
Therefore, he notes, non-Jewish relatives who have been permitted to move to Israel to reunite with their Jewish relatives there are unable to request family reunification for their own non-Jewish relatives back in Ethiopia.
“Anyone who is intermarried and moves to Israel due to the rights of a spouse or relative, their non-Jewish spouse has no right to bring their family members from Ethiopia,” insisted Neguise.
“Claims to the contrary are not true and cannot happen.”
Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, a renowned leader within the religious-Zionist community, former paratrooper and co-founder of the prestigious Yeshivat Har Etzion, also rejects outright such claims.
“I have heard these claims, that half of Africa is on its way to Israel, since Operation Solomon,” says Bin Nun, a longtime advocate for the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews and those of Jewish descent.
He alleged that many opponents of immigration from Ethiopia were motivated by racism, noting that non-Jews of Jewish descent from the former Soviet Union are granted citizenship under the Law of Return while those of similar status in Ethiopia are not.
Bin Nun asserted that whereas Jews in Europe and America in the 19th and 20th centuries became secular, in the parallel period in Ethiopia and until today, there was no such concept as secularism.
As attachment to Judaism weakened due to war and disease, as well as missionary activity, many Ethiopian Jews converted to Christianity as a parallel to the secularization in Europe.
“These people are from a clear Jewish origin and are returning to the religion of their ancestors,” says Bin Nun.
“Their ancestors did convert to Christianity, but not because they were convinced by anything; they converted under pressure, like the pressure of secularization elsewhere.
“Their great-great-grandparents converted to Christianity but that shouldn’t stop us bringing them back to the Jewish people,” he continued, noting that all those of Jewish descent go through a full Jewish conversion once in Israel.
“The ingathering of the exiles is the biggest miracle in Jewish history, greater even than the Exodus from Egypt.
“Thank God, in the merit of the State of Israel, we have merited the biggest miracle of Jewish history,” concludes the rabbi.