Keep Dreaming: Moral obligation or indignation- Our choice to bring Ethiopian Jews home

Not bringing home the marooned Jews in Ethiopia will be a shameful blemish on an otherwise glorious history of the ingathering of our exiles.

A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
“These are people who are Zionists, who have values, who love the Jewish people and the Land of Israel – it is our moral obligation to help them,” declared Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. He was referring to the Jews of France. He might have been speaking about the remnants of the Jewish community of Ethiopia, still stranded in the squalor of Gondar and Addis Ababa, many for as long as 20 years. But he wasn’t. So I will.
Don’t get me wrong. I laud Minister Bennett’s resolve to facilitate the aliyah of French Jews, just as I commend him on the many other initiatives he has championed to strengthen ties between Israel and our brethren around the world. But, as chance would have it, at the same time he was promoting this cause, I was immersed in another, meeting with a group of eight young men from Ethiopia who managed, eight times over, to break my heart.
Ranging in age from 18-29, they know no life other than one of waiting. Waiting to settle in their ancestral homeland. Some for 20 years already, none for less than 14. They are currently in Israel for six months, visas somehow having been secured for them to participate in a special leadership training program.
None of them, however, has been approved for aliyah, despite their devout religious lifestyle and their serving as counselors for the Modern Orthodox Bnei Akiva youth movement. As the end of their time in Israel approaches, they are agonizing over the reality of being sent back into exile, the taste of the Promised Land on their lips, the bitterness of rejection in their hearts and the anguish of returning to a life of poverty, longing and frustration churning in their stomachs.
Tegabu is the oldest of them. Two decades ago, when he was nine, his family came to Addis Ababa with the expectation of continuing on to Israel. For reasons never explained, his grandfather and four of his sisters were allowed to do just, but he and his parents were left behind. Trembling with emotion, he told me that his grandfather – whom he has now seen for the first time in 20 years – is very ill, and continually asks if he will ever get to see his children again – Tegabu’s parents – before he dies.
“Three thousand of us wanting to make aliyah from Addis have died while waiting,” he told me. “Why weren’t they allowed to fulfill their dream of coming home? They all had relatives here, too. We are your brothers. How can it be that we are treated this way? Back in Ethiopia we suffer all the time because we’re Jewish. We’re taunted, made fun of, told by non-Jews that Israel doesn’t accept us so why should they. Yet here we’re told we’re not really Jewish. Me, I serve as a cantor back in the Addis synagogue. But okay, that’s not enough for you, so let me convert. But even that you don’t allow.” He took a deep breath and tried to collect himself. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, how I’m going to go back there. How I can hold on to any hope after waiting for 20 years. How I’m going to tell my parents about my grandfather, that they may never see him again.”
Gatachew, 21, is another of the participants in the program. “I was born into waiting,” he tells me. “I can’t explain why, I don’t have an answer, but 90% of my relatives are in Israel. My parents and I, though, we’re still waiting. In the meantime, we can hardly survive. We can’t get jobs because we won’t work on Shabbat. I don’t know how any of us would manage without the money we get from our relatives here in Israel.” A phenomenon I was unaware of. As difficult as it is for many of the Ethiopian immigrants to eke out a living in Israel, it is common practice for them to send a portion of what they earn to family left behind. It doesn’t take much to make a difference. The average worker in Ethiopia nets $210 a month; those in entry-level positions take home as little as $35.
All of the stories I heard were as distressing. “I never got to know my grandmother,” Ayele told me. “I’m 20 years old and have been waiting in Gondar with my parents since the age of six to come to Israel. My grandmother, though, somehow she got to move here a long time ago, so I didn’t get to ‘meet’ her until I visited her grave during this trip. She had to leave her children behind to come here. No one told her they would never be allowed to follow, that she would never see them again.”
We cannot undo the pain and hardship already caused to these young men and their families, nor to the 8,000 others still waiting in Gondar and Addis Ababa – and the tens of thousands of their relatives already here – who have been deprived of family for decades. We can, however, resolve not to perpetuate their suffering. The “moral obligation” Minister Bennett referred to in regard to the Jews of France applies even more so to those of Ethiopia. Whatever one’s view on their claim to being Jewish, all have been declared eligible to come to Israel in accordance with the Law of Entry and the principle of family reunification. The only real obstacle to bringing them home immediately is a reluctance to open wide the door. The Jewish Agency has already declared its desire to see that happen, as well as its readiness to facilitate the arrival and absorption of all still waiting to come.
At its peak, the aliyah of Jews from France never topped 7,800 annually. More than that number of Ethiopian Jews are literally ready to get on the plane tomorrow. Today, then, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that when the current chapter of Zionist history is written, it not be recorded as a shameful blemish on an otherwise glorious episode in the annals of the ingathering of our exiles. If we are not able to do that, if we do not fulfill our moral obligation to this community, we will forever have to struggle with the moral indignation of all those we have forsaken.
The writer is deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel and a member of the directorate of the Ethiopian National Project, organizations committed to bringing home all of Ethiopia’s Jews and assisting in their successful integration into society.