Eyewitness: 'A great assembly shall return here'

Ethiiopia's last Falash Mura make Aliya.

falasha olim224.88 (photo credit: Michael Freund)
falasha olim224.88
(photo credit: Michael Freund)
It is nearly 11 p.m. last week in Addis Ababa, and large parts of the Ethiopian capital are bathed in darkness, the result of increasingly frequent power shortages in recent months. Soldiers and policemen stand guard on the road in front of the Israeli Embassy, as Kalashnikov rifles hang precariously across their chests. As they adamantly turn away traffic from both directions, a large bus pulls up and is waved through, before parking on the dusty thoroughfare. While its noisy engine takes a much-needed respite, Israeli officials review an assortment of paperwork as they prepare the vehicle's prospective passengers for the short ride to the airport. It is from there that they will board an Ethiopian Airlines flight to complete the millennial-old journey home to the land of their ancestors, the Land of Israel. Meanwhile, inside a neighboring compound, 42 Falash Mura (descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th century) sit quietly and patiently on wooden benches, waiting to board the bus. Their features betray a silent dignity, but little else. There is no trace of excitement or exhaustion on their faces. Only Yossi, a charming three-year old with an infectious grin, dares to beam with enthusiasm, as though he can sense the momentous nature of what they are about to undertake. Ten days ago, Yossi and the others arrived in Addis Ababa after a two-day bus journey from Gondar in Ethiopia's north. After recuperating from the arduous trip, they were put through an intensive mini-seminar by Israeli officials to familiarize them with the ins and outs of aliya. This group, which numbers 38 adults, two children and two babies, is among the last batch of Falash Mura that the Israeli government plans to bring to the Jewish state. According to embassy officials, another 300 or so Falash Mura will be brought to Israel by the end of June, and then the operation will be complete. Embassy staff have already begun seeking employment elsewhere, as rumors of impending cuts in personnel make the rounds. It is the end of an era, one official says, proudly adding that the ancient community of Ethiopian Jewry has at last found its way home. Activists in Israel and the United States disagree, saying that there are at least 8,700 Falash Mura in the Gondar region whose eligibility for aliya has not even been reviewed by the Israeli government, which they accuse of wanting to shut down the process in haste. And they vow to press on until every last member of the Falash Mura who wishes to return to Judaism and the Jewish people is allowed to do so. But such disputes seem far from the minds of everyone present, as the group of would-be Falash Mura immigrants noiselessly makes it way to the bus after getting the go-ahead from the organizers. Even the most cynical of observers cannot help but be moved by their solemnity and poise, as they leave behind everything they know and head off in Abrahamic fashion into the uncertain future that beckons them. Upon reaching the airport, they disembark from the bus, calmly helping one another. A mother carries a baby, gently rocking her to and fro as she settles into a peaceful slumber. An elderly woman, barely able to see or walk, is escorted across the parking lot by two young men as she determinedly makes her way to the terminal. Behind her, a man on crutches struggles along, keeping up with the group, each tedious step bringing him closer to his goal of reaching Jerusalem. Watching the scene unfold, the verse from Jeremiah (Chapter 31) quickly came to mind: "and I shall gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child; a great assembly shall return here." Indeed, it is easy to imagine that this is how the Exodus from Egypt must have appeared, as these remnants of Ethiopian Jewry walk out of the pages of history, and head to the Promised Land. There are those who see the Falash Mura as economic migrants, or even hitchhikers taking advantage of the Zionist dream. After all, say the critics, their motivation is simply to improve their lives and escape to the West. But all the cynicism in the world can't take away from the fact that these precious souls, these "lost Jews," are at last returning to their people and their land. It is surely a cliché, but what other country would go to such efforts? At a time when America is clamping down on Mexican migration, and France and Spain battle to contain a flood of North Africans, little Israel reaches out across kilometers of desert and centuries of travail to bring thousands of black Africans in as equal citizens. As they make their way through Ethiopian airport security, with their meager belongings in hand, one cannot help but see in the fulfillment of their dreams that of ours, too.