The struggle over Ethiopian immigration to Israel: Beyond black and white

There are several questions but few answers as to why the nearly 8,000 members of the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia are still awaiting approval to immigrate to Israel.

Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog welcomes Ethiopian immigrants (photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog welcomes Ethiopian immigrants
(photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
Over the past month, approximately 160 new immigrants from the remaining Jewish community of Ethiopia arrived in Israel. These are the first ones to arrive from Ethiopia since 2017.
At the arrivals hall of Ben-Gurion Airport, the emotions were high as family members reunited with one another after more than a decade of separation. For example, Atemkut served as one of the cantors in the “Tikvat Zion” Synagogue in Gondar and waited 15 years to immigrate to Israel. He reunited with four of his siblings after years of longing. But he also was forced to leave two sisters behind, who did not receive approval to immigrate.
While many of the women adorned themselves in white dresses in honor of the festive occasion, among the new immigrants were three children who were dressed in black. Their mother passed away in Ethiopia just a few days before she was scheduled to immigrate to Israel. This is just one of the many premature deaths that could have been prevented had the Israeli government upheld its obligations and approved the immigration of the community members much sooner.
There are several questions but few answers as to why the nearly 8,000 members of the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia are still awaiting approval to immigrate to Israel, even though the government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unanimously passed a resolution in 2015 to bring those in Addis Ababa and Gondar to Israel.
Is it their Jewish association? This claim is absurd, considering that most of those awaiting immigration have close relatives already living in Israel, and are part of a community that is fervently committed to Jewish tradition and observance. It is also preposterous because almost all of them undergo a formal conversion once they land in Israel.
Furthermore, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, more than half of the immigrants to Israel in 2017 – approximately 17,700, or 54% – were not considered Jewish according to Halacha, and many of them have minimal if any connection to Judaism. Thus, religion is obviously not the reason.
And while the official reason offered by the Israeli government for not implementing its 2015 resolution is “budgetary reasons,” this too is merely an excuse. The government invests large sums of money to encourage immigration from other countries around the world. According to MK Avraham Neguise, who is Ethiopian himself and chairs the Aliyah and Absorption Committee in the Knesset, the budget for immigration is not fully spent and a surplus is returned to the government.
But, the exact reason does not matter. The government has turned its back on the nearly 8,000 individuals who have been knocking on the doors of the Jewish state for over a decade. What does matter is what the next government will do to fix this disgrace.
This is an issue that deals with the core values of the Jewish state: the ingathering of exiles, justice, and equality of rights. These are principles that are etched in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and define the country’s character. How does a country that prides itself on these values explain the fact that it has failed to uphold them with the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia and their children, siblings and parents already in Israel?
We have not received answers to these questions. Let us hope that the next government rights this terrible injustice and returns to the values that the State of Israel was founded upon. If not, future generations will pay the price for this stain on our country’s history.

Alisa Bodner immigrated to Israel from the US eight years ago. She is the spokesperson to international media organizations for the grassroots organization Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah.