Reopening the doors for Ethiopian aliya

"Somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 Ethiopians who strongly identify with the Jewish community were being denied aliya."

The chazan of Bet Selam synagogue in Ethiopia (photo credit: IRENE ORLEANSKY)
The chazan of Bet Selam synagogue in Ethiopia
(photo credit: IRENE ORLEANSKY)
The overwhelming majority of committed Jews know and articulate that aliya is a positive value and, for many, it is a mitzva. Like our ancestors did, we expend personal and communal resources to encourage aliya. Yet, even as aliya was being promoted at the recent World Zionist Congress, many delegates were unaware that somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 Ethiopians who strongly identify with the Jewish community were being denied aliya. Many have Jewish fathers and are patrilineal Jews. Some have been listed on government rolls since 2003.
Most have first-degree relatives already living in Israel. For this population, “aliya” has been an empty cliché.
Many delegates to the Congress believed that Ethiopian aliya was completed because in 2013 the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency declared that it was over and boasted success and victory in ending the tortuous wait to complete the Ethiopian aliya. Large numbers of Federation leaders and other committed Jews perceived no reason for continued involvement in this cause due to incorrect information. But for the past two years, activists working on behalf of the Ethiopian community have been diligently working to convince the government to reexamine its policies.
The recent government resolution on the aliya of Ethiopians who self-identify as Jews was a positive initial step in that direction. According to the recent proposal, Ethiopians who wish to make aliya must have moved from their villages no later than January, 2013 and currently reside in Gondar or Addis Ababa and appear on the lists from that date of those wishing to make aliya.
In addition, the applicant’s Israeli relatives must file an application on his/her behalf and the applicant must be willing to convert to Judaism in Israel. Their current status as Jews based on halacha will not therefore be an impediment to aliya. Deserved recognition should be given to the government and the Knesset for beginning the process anew.
Yet, concerns remain. We are told that the aliya will begin in a few months and could take up to five years to complete. In the past,when aliya was an urgent priority for other communities, the government and the Jewish Agency found the necessary resources and the wherewithal to rescue the endangered population quickly. Yet, when Ethiopian Jews are forced to live in abominable conditions and without adequate food, how can we tolerate a process that could take up to five more years to complete? If thousands of Jews needed to make aliya from France would we not immediately find the resources? Would we demand that they wait for half a decade? Admittedly, entire French community is not seeking to make aliya. But, in 1949/1950, nearly all 49,000 Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel in Operation Wings of Eagles. In the 1980s, once the USSR permitted those who desired to go to Israel to leave, 250,000 Soviet Jews made aliya. And Israel immediately opened its doors. Prospective olim were not required to wait for five years. Now, Israel must again find the way to open its doors to those in need.
Let us assume for a moment that there is an impediment to immediately completing this aliya. It is then critical to officially re-open the compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar that existed until 2013. At that time they were closed because Israel mistakenly declared that all eligible Ethiopians had made aliya and the need for such compounds disappeared. The compounds in both cities provided the “glue” to keep the Jewish communities together and provided physical security in a sometimes hostile society. There were synagogue services, classes for adults and youth, and feeding programs for young children.
Since we now know that the basis on which the compounds were closed is incorrect, and we know who will make aliya, it is time for the appropriate entities to officially reopen them.
The compounds could enhance absorption if Ethiopian Jews received the benefit of education and training while waiting to make their new home in Israel. By investing in the welfare of our future olim while they wait to emigrate, we have the opportunity to ease their aliya and, at the same time, facilitate their becoming productive citizens within their new homeland.
Now is the time for the government and the Jewish Agency to take the steps to both expedite Ethiopian aliya and to re-open the compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa to prepare the Jews for making aliya.
The author is president of the North American Conference On Ethiopian Jews (NACOEJ).