‘The war is senseless’: Sojourn to the heart of Ethiopia’s civil strife

Between 7,000 and 12,000 Ethiopian Jews are estimated to be living in the Tigray region.

 This is one of two synagogues in West Welkega Province that have been forced to close because of the war in Ethiopia. (photo credit: ENSZO)
This is one of two synagogues in West Welkega Province that have been forced to close because of the war in Ethiopia.
(photo credit: ENSZO)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

ADDIS ABABA – We are lounging in an outdoor restaurant in Addis Ababa, the capital of Africa’s oldest independent country and its second-largest in terms of population. Vehicles crawl past as drivers trade insults and press their car horns to the rhythm of the afternoon rush hour. Yet beneath this surface of normality are telltale signs that a conflict rumbles only a few hours’ drive from here.

Soldiers slump in cafes while militiamen in faded uniforms control the sandy roads. Armed police with rusty Kalashnikovs eye everyone entering the area. There are also no other white people in the city aside from us – at least we haven’t seen any in the past week we’ve been here.

Already months ago, countries urged their citizens to leave Ethiopia as government soldiers fight a bitter war to oust rebel forces from their stronghold in the northern region of Tigray. Prompted by the postponement of the general election in November 2020 because of the corona pandemic, the civil war shows no sign of letting up, leaving thousands of people dead and forcing more than two million from their homes. Parts of the country are facing famine.

“Our families, our people, are starving and dying in this war,” explains Nebiyu Yohannes, an Ethiopian Jew who has been waiting years to make aliyah. “The economy has been damaged by the fighting, making living costly. This war affects every Ethiopian, including me.”

Between 7,000 and 12,000 Ethiopian Jews are estimated to be living in the Tigray region. Others, who left their villages years ago, eke out livelihoods near the Jewish community centers in Addis and the Amhara region, where part of the war has spilled over. Last year a member of the community was killed in the fighting.

 Leaders of the Jewish community in North Shewa. (credit: ENSZO) Leaders of the Jewish community in North Shewa. (credit: ENSZO)

Girmew Gete had been waiting for 24 years to bring his family to Israel and reunite with his grandmother, who lives in Kiryat Gat. He enlisted in the Amhara regional army to earn money for his impoverished mother and siblings, who left their village to be close to the Jewish community center in the northern Amhara city of Gondar.

“The war is senseless,” laments Eyayu Abuhay, another member of the country’s small Jewish community that has lived in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Tigray regions for 3,000 years. “We don’t want war. We want to develop. We want to change our country. We want to continue our economic growth. If peace came to Ethiopia, I can tell you surely that Ethiopia will grow in a few years and be a very influential country.”

Originally from Gondar, Abuhay and his family have called Addis Ababa home for more than two decades. It is here where Eyayu got married, had two children, and works in construction, but it is also here where he, his mother and sister have been living in limbo, waiting patiently for the day that Jerusalem grants them their dream of making aliyah.

“We sold everything from Gondar and came to Addis to make aliyah to Israel, but unfortunately we are still here,” says Abuhay. “It’s been 24 years and life is very, very difficult.”

The 36-year-old and his relatives are part of the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians who tick “Jewish” when asked on a form to identify their religion. Their history, like most Jews, dates back to biblical times, with many Ethiopians tracing their roots to Queen Sheba and King Solomon.

It is said that the queen, who was described as one of the most exquisite women ever seen, ventured to see the king with an abundance of valuable gifts in tow. Although the land from where she came is never mentioned, scholars believe it to be Ethiopia, which was then regarded as the end of the world. According to the 14th-century Ethiopian text Kebra Nagast, the love affair between Sheba and Solomon bore a son named Menelik, solidifying the connection between Ethiopia and the Jews, and giving birth to Beta Israel.

Centuries later, that connection remains strong. A Jewish community was established in the Horn of Africa sometime after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Even today, it is not unusual to see tzitzit and women with head-coverings in places where Jews worship.

“I also grew up inside the Gondar community,” says Gezahegn Workie, who now studies at the University of Haifa. “I learned, I studied Hebrew there, and I went to a Jewish school. There were many Israeli volunteers and they taught us some Hebrew and Jewish culture.”

In Addis, 650 kilometers away, the Jews also embraced their culture by establishing a series of Jewish institutions. “We have a synagogue, we have a mikveh, we have a beit midrash, Baruch Hashem,” Abuhay shares. “We are praying every day, and we follow holidays, Shabbat.”

Ethiopia may not really be the end of the world, but there are moments when the country has felt just like that for the Jewish community. Surrounded by other religions, the minority group has been referred to in disrespectful terms that imply they are strangers in a strange land.

“Some people call us Falasha – that means those who came from Israel to Ethiopia and don’t have land,” says Abuhay. “The ancient king said, ‘You are immigrants so you can’t get any land.’ Those were very difficult times for our forefathers. Since then, we are trying just to continue our identity, our life, our roots. But we’ve sacrificed many things,”

Mesfin Assefa founded an NGO 15 years ago to enable Ethiopia’s Jews to practice their religion proudly and without fear, called Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization (ENSZO).

“Our forefathers practiced Judaism in secret for almost three centuries,” says Assefa. “The time has now come to reveal our culture, our identity, our beliefs. I established ENSZO to practice Judaism freely and to revitalize our culture and history openly and officially.”

Still, the hope of making aliyah remains ever alive...

The first case of Ethiopian aliyah was nothing short of extraordinary. Amid the backdrop of civil war and famine during the 1980s, thousands of Beta Israel fled Ethiopia on foot for refugee camps in Sudan. The arduous journey took some as long as two weeks, and others double that, with an estimated 4,000 people losing their lives along the way.

The associate US coordinator for refugee affairs at the time, Richard Krieger, received accounts of Ethiopian Jews being persecuted within the camps, and came up with a covert plan to rescue them. The Avengers were played by members of the Mossad, Israel Defense Forces, Central Intelligence Agency and Sudanese security forces in what would become known as Operation Moses. Over seven weeks from November 21, 1984, to January 5, 1985, more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel onboard 30 flights to begin new lives.

But despite these miraculous efforts, there still remained Jews left behind. Five years later, Israel carried out another mission to bring them home, with Operation Solomon transporting 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Eretz Yisrael on May 24-25, 1991, with at least eight children born during the 36-hour process. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 155,000 Ethiopian Israelis – almost 2% of the country’s population – as of 2020.

The operations resulted in many “orphans of circumstance” – children brought to Israel while their families remained in Africa. Unfortunately, this situation still holds true today. And while it was once the Ethiopian government that made it difficult for its Jewish citizens to make aliyah, it is now Israel that is keeping families separated across continents, claiming that some members of a family are Jewish (and thus eligible for aliyah) and others not.

“They’re trapped in Ethiopia for many years due to the government in Israel not enabling their aliyah,” explains Uri Perednik, chairman of the Struggle for Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry. “These people left their villages and gave up all their property in order to make aliyah to Israel. This was encouraged by the Jewish Agency or other NGOs, which were working in Ethiopia together with the Israeli government. But after they left their villages, gave up all their property and moved to cities like Gondar and Addis Ababa, some of their families made aliyah and they stayed stuck behind.”

Like Abuhay’s family. All four of his mother’s siblings managed to make aliyah over the years. Each one – including his mother – has the same parents, but it is his mother’s line who are not Jewish, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry.

“They tell us we are not Jewish,” says Abuhay. “When we ask why, they say they don’t know! If our family’s Jewish, we are Jewish. If we are Jewish, our family’s Jewish. So in this case, they are slowing the aliyah. When we ask them why – why are you making us suffer – they say it is not their problem.”

So whose problem is it?

“We had a lot of hope from the interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, who’s in charge of this issue,” says Perednik. “In the past, she also visited the community in Addis and actually said that she’ll be active on their behalf. But since she’s been elected, she is very much against them. She opposes any solution for them. She says they aren’t Jewish and shouldn’t be able to make aliyah.”

“But we are Jewish!” refutes Abuhay. “We can’t remove our Jewishness from our blood. If they doubt us about our Jewishness, please will they send a representative to check us. We are open to being checked. We are ready. We have been crying for 24 years. It feels like they are killing our mothers, they are killing our fathers, they are killing our kids. We are imprisoned by the Israeli government. When will they let us out of this painful prison?”

 Members of the Jewish community in North Shewa were forced to migrate to the Beneshangule region amid great suffering. (credit: ENSZO) Members of the Jewish community in North Shewa were forced to migrate to the Beneshangule region amid great suffering. (credit: ENSZO)

For Workie, it took 17 years – almost half his life – before his Israeli dream was realized. His story is not dissimilar to Abuhay’s in that his relatives made aliyah 20 years ago, and his immediate family planned to follow suit. Three years later, Workie’s family sold all their belongings in their small, countryside village of Alepha to move to Gondar, where they waited for almost two decades.

“Jews all over the world can make aliyah whenever they want, but Ethiopian Jews cannnot,” he said. “Some government officials are just pretending – they don’t want to help the Ethiopian Jews as much as they need.”

Workie’s family, too, was not given any reason why they could not move. All they received were empty promises.

“When there is an election, they [Israel] pretend to give us the chance to come to Israel. But after the election, they just cancel.”

Workie’s story has a happy ending, but it was not without tireless effort from his Israel-based relatives who spent hours at the Interior Ministry.

“They tried to explain seven generations of our family and the holy names of our ancestors,” said Workie. “Finally, they proved that we are Jewish and then we made aliyah.”

The one politician, however, that many Ethiopian Jews still have faith in is Immigrant Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. Born in a village outside of Gondar, she and her family were among those evacuated during Operation Moses when the future minister was three years old. In 2013, she became the first Ethiopian-born woman to enter the Knesset, and seven years later became the first Ethiopian-born minister.

Tamano-Shata has been a loud voice in calling on Jerusalem to move more swiftly to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She vociferously criticized the decision earlier this month by the High Court of Justice to temporarily freeze plans to let thousands of Falash Mura make aliyah while it reviews a petition against the move.

The Immigration Policy Center asserts that members of this community are not Jews, and thus do not qualify to immigrate. While it is true that their ancestors converted to Christianity generations ago, often under duress, 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel over the past 25 years. But the Interior Ministry does not consider them Jewish, and thus they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.

Tamano-Shata has warned that “with every day that passes,” they face growing danger in Ethiopia because of the civil war.

“We know of some people within the Jewish community in Gondar who were killed as innocent bystanders, and we’ve had reports of people being kidnapped,” says Perednik. “So the violence is definitely affecting the Jewish community, and there’s an urgency in enabling their aliyah. Unfortunately, the government in Israel is not taking the urgency seriously enough.”

The World Food Program has warned that Ethiopia is on the edge of a humanitarian disaster. The last time that a food convoy was able to reach Tigray’s capital of Mekelle was in mid-December, with 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia now requiring humanitarian food aid, according to the food-assistance branch of the United Nations.

“Every Jew should live in the homeland of Israel,” says Abuhay. “We are waiting for them to call us to make aliyah. Everything is listed by Misrad Hapnim (Interior Ministry). They know us. But as you know, bureaucracy is difficult.”

His sons, age seven and 14, “love Israel so much. They link everything with Israel. If they see good things, they say, ‘Wow, Abba, it came from Israel!’ Sometimes I worry about this thinking. I love their passion for Israel, but I fear they will hurt just like us. They always ask me when we will go to Israel. ‘One day,’ I tell them. ‘One day.’ B’ezrat Hashem (God willing) we will enter, we will make aliyah, because a Jew never gives up. Jews always believe in God. They trust in God. We never ever give up.”

The community’s connection to Israel means that its members are no strangers to antisemitism, like many Jews living in the Diaspora. Although incidents of violence in Ethiopia are low, remarks do not go unheard.

“There are good people and there are bad people,” explains Abuhay. “There are people who see us and shout, ‘You Jew people, you killed our god!’ When some Christians see us, they are angry. When some Muslims see us they say, ‘Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, you people kill the Palestinians!’ When the extremists see us, they insult us. But most of the people are very good.”

Part of the work that Assefa’s organization has been doing since 2007 is opening synagogues throughout the country.

“In the past 15 years we’ve opened five synagogues,” he says. “When we started, we struggled for almost two years to get a license to practice Judaism.”

One of the more recent synagogues is located in an area in Amhara where the conflict is severe. “The Jews in that community are practicing there, but we have had no contact with them for the last six or seven months because of the war,” Assefa reveals.

Aside from evacuating Ethiopian Jews, there are those who believe Israel has another role to play amid the conflict.

“Ethiopia is fighting against terrorist groups,” says Yohannes. “As the best allies of Ethiopia from the very beginning, Israel should help to make the Horn of Africa more peaceful and stable.”

But whereas a civil war once prompted Israel to rally her troops and save her Ethiopian brethren, it seems that the current cry for help continues to fall on deaf ears...  ■