Behind the Headlines: Israel Wants to Deport Man Who Helped Save Ethiopians

In the early 1980s, Dejen Gebrai, an Ethiopian Christian, helped thousands of Ethiopian Jews fly to Israel as part of Operation Moses.

But when Gebrai arrived in Israel in 1992, he did not receive a hero’s welcome. Instead, six years later, he faces deportation.

Officials at the Israeli Interior Ministry say he entered Israel on false pretenses and misled authorities by masquerading as a Jew.

“It makes no sense,” says Gebrai, 34, telling his story with a calmness that belies the public storm the incident has sparked. “I’ve served in the army and I’m a full-fledged Israeli.”

Gebrai is awaiting the outcome of an appeal submitted to the Justice and Interior ministries that will determine his fate.

Meanwhile, his lawyer, Nadav Haber, is preparing to petition the High Court of Justice next week for a second time if the appeal to the ministries is delayed or rejected.

During the 1980s, Gebrai and his brother Aslaka Asafa escorted, guided and protected thousands of Ethiopian Jews along the treacherous, monthlong 180-mile journey by foot from their villages to the Sudanese border — from where they were airlifted to Israel.

The story of their efforts is backed up by eight affidavits signed by Ethiopian Jews they helped rescue, and three more signed by Israelis who know Gebrai personally.

In one statement, Sandaka Terko, an elderly Ethiopian Jew, describes the warm relationship between the entire Jewish community from the Ethiopian village of Terre and Gebrai’s family — a relationship that predated Operation Moses, when 7,500 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in 1984-1985.

In 1991′s Operation Solomon, an additional 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during a 24-hour period.

Moshe Elbal, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1985, described how Gebrai selflessly risked his life for Ethiopian Jews.

“Helping Jews was very dangerous,” says Elbal. “Aslaka and Dejen never asked for compensation as a condition for helping the Jews.”

But the brothers paid a heavy personal price. During one trek, their cousin was killed in a clash with bandits.

Even so, Gebrai does not regret the risks he took. “We did it out of love,” he says. “It did not matter if they were Jews or Christians. Our parents told us, `You must help these people.’”

And the families returned that love. Although he received no official payment for his services, some paid symbolic amounts from the little they had. Years later, after he helped one young woman make the trip from the province of Gondar to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for the Operation Solomon airlift, an indebted family paid him in kind — they listed him as a family member with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

This paved the way for Gebrai’s entry into Israel, but would later prove to be his undoing.

Gebrai arrived in Israel in 1992 and joined the army — a move he said strengthened the bond he feels with Jews.

“When I was drafted, I really felt like I wanted to contribute,” he says. “I felt like a Jew and an Israeli.”

After his service, Gebrai went to trade school and began to work as an electrician. He met an Ethiopian Jewish woman, married her by proxy in a civil ceremony and prepared to convert to Judaism.

But on Jan. 15, he was summoned by the Interior Ministry to sign a statement saying he was not a member of the Jewish family that sponsored his entry into Israel.

Minutes after signing, Gebrai was arrested and thrown into prison for 20 days.

Ironically, the deportation proceedings were initiated by an Ethiopian Jewish clerk in the Interior Ministry whom Gebrai helped escape from Ethiopia.

Gebrai is convinced the campaign for his deportation was started by another family with whom he had a personal dispute.

With the help of his lawyer, Gebrai has been fighting the decree. But two major Ethiopian Jewish organizations, along with Knesset member Adisu Massala, who immigrated from Ethiopia, have shied away from the struggle.

“My job is to help the absorption of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants,” said the Labor Party lawmaker, explaining why he has not spoken out on behalf of Gebrai.

Massala said Gebrai’s case is complicated because the Interior Ministry says he lied to enter Israel.

Some Ethiopian Jewish activists in Israel have said that they did not want to get involved in a struggle for a non-Jew, fearing it would unleash a flood of requests for citizenship by other gentiles.

But Massala said in an interview that he is helping Gebrai quietly. The lawmaker said Gebrai should get help “on humanitarian grounds” because he served in the Israeli army.

While the Ethiopian organizations have been quiet, the outpouring of public sympathy for his cause has left Gebrai optimistic.

“People are rallying to help me, and everybody is showing their love. I like to be here, I love the people and I want to convert,” he says. “Nothing can make me move from Israel.”

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