This year in Jerusalem? The plight of the last Ethiopian Jews

The community is deeply committed to Judaism.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked visits in Ethiopia (photo credit: THE STRUGGLE FOR ETHIOPIAN ALIYAH)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked visits in Ethiopia
On Tuesday, 100 activists, many of them Ethiopian, will turn out for a protest in front of the home of Interior Minister Arye Deri. Their cry ahead of a June 18 ministerial committee meeting that could bring the last 8,000 Jews of Ethiopia to Israel: “Bring them home.”
This is the third in a series of protests of this kind. In the protests, the Ethiopians stand on the street with signs of their loved ones in their hands and white masks or face paint covering their dark skin. This is because many of them believe racism is the reason that the 2015 decision by the government to bring the last Jews of Ethiopia to Israel has not been implemented. They know that they have been separated from their families for a decade or more and that their loved ones are living in abject poverty.
As an informed citizen, I had heard many of the above arguments for years but did not know fact from fiction. As such, shortly after Passover, I decided that if bringing the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel is an important religious, spiritual and political issue, I should meet these Jews and see firsthand how Jewish they are, and in how much poverty they are living.
I arrived in Ethiopia on a Monday morning at the end of April. I found a Jewish community like the one I had always imagined of the Jewish people 2,500 years ago: individuals following the pure Jewish faith straight out of the Bible, completely disconnected from technology and the world.
Families live in one-room mud huts, which serve as bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens for the whole family. There is no running water and there are no toilets. But in almost every house, there is a corner set up separately with Shabbat candles.
In every house, one nail per family member is tapped into the wall. And on those nails hang one garment for every person. Next to those hooks, hang picture frames, and inside them are photographs of their loved ones who have already immigrated to Israel.
“This is my daughter, this is my father, these are my grandchildren who serve as fighters in the Israel Defense Forces, but I was told I could not go with them. Why?” one older woman said to me.
The community is deeply committed to Judaism. I heard the children sing “Hatikva” and “Next Year in Jerusalem.” On Shabbat, they danced the traditional Ethiopian shoulder dance to the melody of “Lecha Dodi.”
Throughout the week, there were Torah classes and minyanim three times a day with Amharic translation.
One day, I climbed a mountain and saw a small crowded cemetery.
“Those are the graves of those who died in the past 20 years, who were waiting here to immigrate to the Land of Israel,” one of the community members told me. “We had to open a cemetery for ourselves, because the Christians do not let us be buried in their cemetery. They call us derogatory names for Jews.”
In the evening, I would sit among the youth in deep conversation. They spoke to me in Hebrew with a mastery of the language much better than my Hebrew was when I moved to Israel after completing high-tuition Hebrew schools in the United States.
I asked them why they could not immigrate to Israel, the place they pray toward every day from Ethiopia. They would lower their heads and say, “They don’t like us in Israel. Maybe it is because we are black.”
I would hug them tight.
“We are Jews, we were born Jews, we live as Jews, and we are going to die Jews,” one young man said. Then he asked, “How can anyone who does not know us reject our Jewishness?”
Each time, I looked at them and said, “Next year in Jerusalem,” with an attempt at confidence.
The people would reply, “No, this year in Jerusalem, God willing. This year in Jerusalem.”
The writer is an IDF captain (res.) and the director of The Heart of Israel, a program of the Binyamin Fund.