Black lives matter: Time to bring home the Ethiopian Jews left behind

In 2015, the Israeli government committed itself to bringing some 9,000 additional Falash Mura to Israel over a period of five years.

FALASH MURA COMMUNITY members arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on May 21. (photo credit: FLASH90)
FALASH MURA COMMUNITY members arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on May 21.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Who could fail to identify with the demonstrations taking place throughout the world – including in Tel Aviv – against the horrific manner in which a black man was murdered by a Minnesota policeman?
It recalls the demonstrators in this country a year ago who blocked major junctions, following the death of a young Israeli Ethiopian, 19-year-old Solomon Tekah, at the hands of the police.
Death is not only about dying. There is also a slow agonizing death of hope, and this is what is being experienced by our Ethiopian brethren awaiting aliyah.
MAY 20 was a red-letter day for 119 fortunate Falash Mura who arrived in Israel; many are now joyfully reunited with family here. Their arrival coincided with the Israeli Ethiopian Community’s annual Memorial Day, mourning the loss of some 4,000 brethren who perished on their arduous trek from Ethiopia to the Sudan. Their dream was to be airlifted to Israel. The survivors made it via Israel’s incredible Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, which brought 20,000 Ethiopians to Israel.
In 2015, the Israeli government committed itself to bringing some 9,000 additional Falash Mura to Israel over a period of five years. Sadly, there is little evidence of this promise turning into a reality. Nine thousand had left their villages, their land, their cattle, their livelihood and homes – which have since been bought or confiscated by their neighbors – to arrive in Gondar and Addis Ababa where, today, they live in urban slum dwellings. Hoping to come to Jerusalem (Israel for them), instead they find themselves relying on humanitarian organizations to support their daily existence.
In addition to the 119 olim who arrived here on May 20, this year (2020) also saw a group of 43 Ethiopian olim arrive on February 25 – days before the third Israeli election – and a further 72 arriving on March 24, just hours prior to the closure of Ben-Gurion Airport because of the pandemic. This is good, but not enough.
The Falash Mura is the name given to those Ethiopian Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries. In spite of their conversion, they never abandoned their Jewish faith. The late chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, in 1973, recognized them as Jews, but today they are prevented from coming to Israel via the “Law of Return” because the Interior Ministry refuses to concur with Rabbi Yosef’s view. Those that are here were permitted entry on the grounds of reunification with family; yet this hardly makes sense, as the ones awaiting aliyah are destined to remain in Ethiopia in spite of their close family connections here.
Visitors to Gondar witness how the synagogue (a hut with frail hangings as walls) is the focus of the Falash Mura’s lives. Their commitment to Judaism can be epitomized by the community’s Sintayehu Shafrao whose knowledge of the Bible enabled him, two years ago, to participate in Israel’s International Bible Quiz competing against Jewish teenagers from all over the world.
ESRA’s project chair, Nina Zuck, introduced the Magazine to 25-year-old Desalah. He came from Ethiopia, in 1998, at the age of three, together with his parents and three siblings; three additional siblings were born in Israel. His mother’s brother, two sisters and their respective children were part of this aliyah.
Sadly, for the past 22 years, his mother has anxiously awaited the arrival of a second brother; recently blinded, whose wife died in the interim period; he, together with his two children and grandchildren, remain in Adis Ababa.
Desalah’s other uncle, living in Netanya, has petitioned Israel’s Foreign Ministry, seeking ways to bring his uncle and family here. He has traveled numerous times to Jerusalem to no avail. Unfortunately, he recently suffered a stroke, preventing him from continuing his “pleading” visits to Jerusalem. It appears inevitable that Desalah’s blind uncle and family will remain a statistic – part of the thousands still awaiting their aliyah.
Why has the government failed to fulfill its promise? An implication is that the Falash Mura are not recognized as Jews. Somewhat strange, when we witnessed how the vast majority of those who came from the Former Soviet Union were accepted here in spite of not being halachically Jewish. There is but a single conclusion – the color of their skin is the prime obstacle to their aliyah.
Two weeks ago, the Magazine carried the positive story of Israeli Ethiopian Pnina Tamano-Shata, who has been appointed aliyah and integration minister. I would love to introduce her to ESRA’s Students Build a Community project, where, during these past weeks of lockdown, including closure of schools, 49 students (a high proportion of whom are of Ethiopian origin) ensured that the children they mentor (again, many being Israeli Ethiopians) continued to receive their daily mentoring and help with school work via WhatsApp, Zoom and, for those without a computer, constant contact by phone. What amazing role models these students are for the youngsters they mentor.
We hope that Tamano-Shata will be able to persuade her government to fulfill the promise they made in 2015. Budget limitations have been the excuse for this unacceptable situation. Yet when we view the cost of today’s bloated government – 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers plus cars, drivers and homes – we wonder where the truth really lies.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.