Mass Jewish Exodus from Ethiopia Unlikely for Now, Officials Say
Menu JTA Search

Mass Jewish Exodus from Ethiopia Unlikely for Now, Officials Say

Download PDF for this date

Officials of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel have put a damper on expectations that the immigration of Ethiopian Jews will flow swiftly now that Ethiopia has re-established diplomatic relations with Israel.

Uri Gordon, head of the agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, warned Tuesday that the euphoria that swept the Ethiopian community here following the announcement in Addis Ababa last weekend may be premature.

That feeling could turn to bitter disappointment when it becomes clear that the process of bringing the estimated 15,000 to 18,000 Jews in Ethiopia to Israel will take time, Gordon said.

He observed that the profound longing of Ethiopian Jews here for reunification with family members left behind has created tension within their community.

Expectations of speedy reunions were heightened by an unconfirmed report in the International Herald Tribune this week that the Swedish Embassy in Addis Ababa was issuing visas to Ethiopian Jews to facilitate their departure.

Hopes also were boosted by a statement made Monday by a high-ranking Ethiopian official in Jerusalem that “family reunion” is a principle accepted by his government.

The speaker was Kessa Kebede, a member of the Ethiopian Central Committee and a relative and senior adviser of the Ethiopian president, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.


But Gordon emphasized that reunification will take a long time. He said there are no plans for an airlift, such as the one employed in Operation Moses, the clandestine effort that brought more than 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the winter of 1984-85.

In New York, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry also expressed doubt that there would be an imminent surge in immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It said an agreement on the subject between the two governments would likely require lengthy negotiation.

The conference also pointed out that most of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia are living in areas controlled by anti-government rebel forces, such as the Tigre People’s Liberation Front. Many Jews in those areas are currently homeless refugees, wandering from village to village in search of food and security, the group said.

Jonathan Giesberg, president of the conference, urged the world Jewish community to extend financial and medical assistance to Ethiopian Jews who have been driven from their homes. “It would be a tragedy indeed if Jews who could have been helped to survive die in what may be the last months before they can go home to Israel,” he said in a statement.

Gordon of the Jewish Agency said that while all statements on the subject should be framed with caution, there is no reason not to talk publicly about the plans and prospects of absorbing a new influx of Ethiopian Jews when they do arrive.

He said he is, in fact, anxious for this aspect to be aired at every level, so that practical arrangements can be made for a smooth.

Jewish Agency officials stress that the Ethiopian newcomers will be housed at first in absorption centers, which have been largely eliminated in favor of “direct absorption” for immigrants from other countries.

Jews from Ethiopia often require an initial period of close assistance to familiarize themselves with life in Israel.


Kebede was remarkably frank at his joint news conference here Monday with Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

He said his country’s decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Israel, which it broke at the time of the Yom Kippur War 16 years ago, was related to Israel’s “strong and close connections with the Jewish lobby in the United States.

“We see possibilities in this,” said Kebede, who studied at the Hebrew University in the 1960s and speaks Hebrew fluently.

His remarks confirmed the view of Africa experts who ascribe Mengistu’s move to a desire for Western aid against the Eritrean and Tigrean insurgencies, which have plunged Ethiopia into two civil wars.

Kebede denied knowledge of a New York Times story that Israeli military aides are already advising the Ethiopian armed forces.

Israeli Foreign Ministry sources also denied the report.

Netanyahu, however, confirmed that an Israeli diplomatic team would leave for Addis Ababa shortly, to prepare for the reopening of the Israeli Embassy there.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund