On Aug. 28, Israel will welcome the last official group of Ethiopians immigrating to Israel, a low-key conclusion to a complicated, at times triumphant and at times tragic, aliyah process that is still playing itself out three decades after it began.
In all, about 100,000 men, women and children have been brought to Israel from Ethiopia, across thousands of miles and many decades, if not centuries, in terms of social and religious history.
The very concept of a tiny state rescuing so many people from lives of poverty and, at times, persecution to dwell as Jews in freedom is a living embodiment of the Zionist ideal. We remember the excitement of the dramatic missions, taking great pride in Israel’s sense of responsibility to the Beta Yisrael, those who claimed an ancient Jewish heritage. Operation Moses, a clandestine mission, brought 8,000 people to Israel over a seven-week period starting in 1984. It was followed in the spring of 1991 by Operation Solomon, the rapid rescue of more than 14,000 people in 36 hours. (A world record was set for the most people on a civilian flight when 1,122 were on board one of the El Al flights.)
But the high of those missions was countered by the many difficulties the new immigrants faced. Their Judaism was questioned, and they underwent conversion. Though the Zionist objective was color-blind — a predominantly white society bringing black Africans to resettle among them — the newcomers contended with plenty of racism and the challenges of transitioning from life in a pre-modern society.
There are higher rates of poverty, alcoholism and suicide among the Ethiopian population than among other Jewish groups in Israel, and relatively few go on to university. In addition, there has been extensive controversy over the status of a second group that sought redemption, the Falash Mura, those whose 19th- and 20th-century ancestors converted to Christianity under pressure and who themselves sought to return to Judaism.
Some were skeptical of these people, saying they were not sincere but simply looking for a ticket to a new life outside of Ethiopia. Others said they were separated from their brethren through no fault of their own.
Too often forgotten in this complex chapter of modern Jewish history is the sincerity and suffering of those members of the Beta Yisrael who made their way from Ethiopia to Israel via the Sudan, walking through deserts with little food or provisions. Thousands died along the way, but the survivors pressed on. There remains a quiet dignity among the elders whose faith in the ancient tradition helped them and their followers endure countless hardships.
Even now, with the last official group of Falash Mura coming to Israel, the saga doesn’t end. From the outset there have been advocacy groups who have criticized Israel for moving too slowly in bringing people out of Ethiopia or questioning the Jewishness of the would-be emigrants. Charges of racism were leveled at the government at times. Today there are still hundreds of families in Ethiopia seeking to be reunited with family in Israel, and the Jewish school in Gondar is made up primarily of youngsters who have known only a Jewish education. Will the local school and synagogue still function once the Jewish Agency officials have gone?
Thanks to the efforts of the advocacy groups, the Israeli Ministry of Interior has set up an appeals committee to go through the lists of approved applicants from 2003 and 2010 in a case-by-case process to determine the legitimacy of these claims.
As with so many aspects of the Ethiopian aliyah saga, the remaining issues are poignant, complex and bitterly disputed. But while it is still too early to step back and assess the full impact of this difficult aliyah, with all of its high-profile drama and quiet suffering, it remains a vivid proof of Israel’s ongoing commitment to fulfill the Zionist mission of the ingathering of the exiles, however imperfect it may be.
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