Time to feel discomfort as our brethren languish

Now is the time for every Israeli to feel discomfort.

Ethiopian protesters  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ethiopian protesters
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Although the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency jubilantly declared four years ago that all of the eligible Jews living in Ethiopia who wanted to make aliya and adopt Israel as their homeland had finally arrived, 8,200 in Addis Ababa and Gondar still remain. Languishing in Ethiopia, these individuals, young and old, long to be reunited with their families who were fortunate to already have received permission to emigrate to their new homeland. Pleas for family reunification were ignored until government officials such as members of the Knesset coalition, Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem boldly refused to support and vote with their coalition last year, forcing the Israeli cabinet to eventually decide in effect that any member of the Ethiopian Jewish community who had registered to make aliya between 2003 and 2010 would now be permitted to realize this dream. A trickle of Jews have been permitted to make aliya – but it is too little and too slow. It is, in effect, an empty token.
So, the 8,200 individuals remain in limbo holding on to their dreams – some of them for over two decades. They have been told that Israel does not have the resources to absorb all of them immediately. My wife and I visited many of them in Gondar last year. There, we were welcomed by three families, each living in their cramped one- or two-room shacks that lacked both running water and latrines. They cooked on a fire either on the dirt floor of their “living room” or just outside their door. In one of the homes, there were only two beds for five people, so the residents slept in shifts.
We returned this week from visiting the Jews in Addis Ababa. There we met a woman, 98 years old, who has been waiting for two decades to finally realize her dream and make Israel her home for whatever remains of her life. Her children and grandchildren live in Israel. She has not seen them for years. She lives alone in a small isolated hut with no electricity or plumbing. She asked us why she can’t be reunited with her loved ones in Israel and we stood silent, unable to answer.
This woman is not unique in being separated from family. According to the Ministry of the Interior, 783 of those Jews stranded in Ethiopia have children living in Israel, 2,191 have parents who are in Israel and 2,436 have siblings in Israel. Over the years, when I visit families in their one-room homes in Ethiopia, I encounter children with pictures of parents they may not have seen for years. They cry, but no one from Israel seems to care. I have met many parents over the years who have not been able to share the lives of their children because the children are in Israel and the parents are barred from making aliya. They groan, but no one in Israel seems to sufficiently notice to put the funds in the budget for their absorption. So, the Ethiopian Jews sit and impatiently wait... and dream.
These visits moved us greatly, but our main purpose in traveling to Ethiopia was to spend time with the children. A few years ago, when we became aware of the kaitanot (day camps) planned for Addis Ababa and Gondar, we were dismayed to learn that the children would not have any food during the day There simply were no funds to purchase the food. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and its supporters raised the funds to provide each child with a modest meal for each of the past three summers. Each child receives a daily plate consisting of a hard-boiled egg, a baked potato, a banana and a roll. It is not much, but the menu is designed to provide vitamins and nutrients to sustain their lives and to relieve their hunger. This year over 1,500 children between the ages of six and 18 are being fed in the kaitanot each day. Through modest generosity, lives are being saved. It costs merely two shekels to feed each child in the kaitana. Israel should find the means to make certain that no child suffers from hunger or malnutrition until it can fulfill its responsibility to permit their aliya.
The Jewish calendar recently marked a period of sadness for the Jewish people. During these three weeks, we remembered the catastrophes that befell our people in the past, including the destruction of the two holy Temples and of Jerusalem itself. Amongst the ways that we marked these days was the by denying ourselves the food and drink that were readily available to us. The food was sitting in our pantry, and the beverage was in our refrigerator, yet we refrained from eating or drinking on the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av in order feel the discomfort and loss of cherished life of the past. But when the sun set, we satiated our thirst and hunger.
Unfortunately, for the Jews of Ethiopia, the hunger and the thirst is never satisfied. Their kitchens are empty and will remain empty until we help, or until they are blessed with the realization of their dreams and are welcomed in Israel.
As I fasted on these days, I tried to think of how my discomfort might inspire me to help remove the discomfort of others. Now is the time for every Israeli to feel discomfort. Now is the time for the people of Israel to demand more than promises and concern. Now is the time for Israelis to demand that their government fulfill the promise that each of the 8,200 Jews who the Israeli Government has already approved for aliya will be privileged in reality to call Israel “home.”
The author recently returned from Ethiopia in his role as president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.