The Ethiopian Aliyah: Mission (Almost) Accomplished
Wed, 08/21/2013

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.

editor@jewishweek.org
 

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My neme is mered gizate am ethiopan ju hafe of ma famile live in isral but am stil in ethiopa in bad condition. The isral goverement went to close eth.aliyha and wat shale i do so plis help me i mees ma famile and my fathers land

In Tuesday's Jerusalem Post a picture appeared of Natan Scharansky, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, surrounded by dozens of smiling Ethiopian faces at what had been the Jewish school in Gondar until several weeks ago.The photo accompanied an article describing "Operation Dove's Wings", what purports to be the final act of the Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel but which will actually leave several thousand Ethiopians in permanent limbo, separated from their parents, children, brothers and sisters in Israel by an arbitrary governmental decision to ignore the spirit of the Law of Return when it comes to Ethiopia, while upholding it in whiter and richer parts of the world. The smiles in the picture mask enormous anger and distress, because they belong to a group of teachers of Hebrew and Judaism- ironically employed by the Jewish Agency- who themselves been waiting to join their relatives in Israel for over a decade and have now been told that their exile will be permanent.

How did this tragedy come about? When the Beta Yisrael, the traditional Ethiopian Jewish community was brought to Israel during the 1970's and 80's a reawakening took place among tens of thousands of Ethiopians who descended from Jews that had been forcible converted or actively missioned during the last century or so. After a period of confusion following Operation Solomon, in 1991the State of Israel made the historic decision to bring the last remnants of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. The return to Judaism and the aliya since then of almost 60,000 members of this community constitutes one of the great Zionist victories over the viscissitudes of Jewish history. However things became complicated in 2003, when the government suddenly decided to consult with the Chief Rabbinate about who should and who should not be allowed to immigrate to Israel. Not surprisingly, the Rabbinate replied that aliya should be reserved for individuals who can trace their Jewish lineage to their mother's side in an uniterrupted line. The introduction of a Halachic criteria to immigration policy constituted a major and unfathomable break with the spirit of the Law of Return, which does not discriminate between the desendents of Jewish mothers and fathers. Consciously reflecting the Nuremberg Laws, the Knesset legislated that the grandchild of of Jews, both men and women, would be welcome in the State of Israel as citizens. By changing the rules in the middle of the mass migration of Ethiopian Jews the government caused enormous misery to up to almost 2000 families who found themselves suddenly split apart. Some of those left behind became teachers of Hebrew and Judaism, ironically employed by the Jewish Agency to operate what was a Jewish school only two months ago, and it is they who appear in the picture together with their employer.

Operation Dove's Wings is a fiction worthy of the Soviet Union, and the picture in question would have fit better in Pravda than in the Jerusalem Post. It is ironic and deeply troubling the Natan Scharansky should play a part in the farce of "Operation Dove's Wings, because the premature interruption of the Ethiopian aliya is a betrayal of the very values that brought Natan Scharansky himself to Israel. During the nine years of his incarceration emmisaries of the State of Israel and Jews around the world work ceaselessly in order to reunite the Scharansky family. The Jewish remnant of Ethiopia deserve no less.

As the 50th aniversary of the March On Washington fast approaches I come to say that for our African family the struggle also still continues. But sad to say, it continues with twice the pain of being black and Jewish.

The story is amazing and while few will remember who did what to make this happen, no one can forget what was accomplished. I do recall Barbara R. Gordon returning from a trip to Ethiopia and trying to convince people that there were Jews there. Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Cohen of the Lincoln Square Synagogue confirmed that in their opinion they were Jewish. This gave momentum to the organizing of organizations to help get them to Israel.

c

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