Twenty-five years ago, a covert, 36-hour airlift spirited some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews out of the country during a civil war. Called Operation Solomon, it captured the imagination of the world.
The operation used modern technology, a fleet of airplanes, to rescue an ancient people — the Jews of Ethiopia, who are thought to have lived there for some 2,000 years, descendants of the biblical tribe of Dan.
It was a time of enormous pride in Israel for fulfilling a central tenet of Judaism, kibbutz galuyot, by bringing in Jews who yearn to settle in the Jewish homeland.
Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish population has subsequently risen to 135,000. But interest in the ongoing plight of thousands of Ethiopians, who declare themselves to be of the same Jewish stock and wait impatiently to settle in Israel, appears to have waned.
Following years of promises to bring to Israel members of the group commonly known as Falash Mura — a pejorative term in disfavor in Ethiopian Jewish circles — the Jerusalem government recently approved a plan to speed up their aliyah. But then it appeared to renege on the pledge, and subsequently announced that it will abide by the original plan, at a slow pace.
Some 9,000 members of the Ethiopian Jewish group, whose relatives converted to Christianity under heavy pressure more than a century ago, now live in transit camps in Addis Ababa, the capital, and in Gondar, a major city in the northern part of the country. They came there with the hope of making aliyah but many have been waiting for more than a decade.
We cannot remain silent.
The government last year approved the immigration of the 9,000, then backtracked this year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption baskets was not in the state budget. Instead, officials said they would limit the number of Ethiopians entering the country this year.
Racism, cried the critics, who questioned if the government has the interest in, or will to, fully assimilate its minority African population into a majority white population with roots in Europe.
Finances, said the government, which announced in June an immediate resumption of the aliyah, pending budget approval, with all the Ethiopian Jews ruled eligible by Israeli authorities to arrive in the next five years. An interministerial committee this week delivered to Netanyahu a report on ways to reduce prejudice in Israeli society.
Meanwhile, an ad hoc group of rabbis and other Jewish leaders in this country is pressuring the government to keep its promise. In a letter to the prime minister, they expressed “deep disappointment” in the government for its “painful failure to admit” the thousands of people, “even though they are living Jewish lives in Ethiopia, learning and speaking Hebrew, praying as Jews and passionately committed to aliyah.”
Rabbi David Elcott, who became involved when he and his wife, Rabbi Shira Milgrom, visited Ethiopia in 2014, helped raise funds to sponsor a visit this summer to the U.S. of two young members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, personalizing the plight of thousands like them who are stranded in Addis and Gondar. (See story on page 12.) Elcott has initiated a petition drive that urges Israel to “ensure that the State of Israel welcomes Jews of all colors.”
In a similar effort, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is promoting the work of young Israeli volunteers who have travelled to Ethiopia to help prepare the next generation of Ethiopian Jews for their eventual life in Israel.
But for many American Jews, Ethiopian Jewry is yesterday’s news, Elcott told us. “They are tired” of the issue. He and other advocates are mystified by Israel’s actions. Or, more precisely, non-actions.
It would be a shame if Israel, which has taken heroic actions in the past to prove that it is color-blind when it comes to aliyah, were accused of racism due to Netanyahu’s reversal of the recommendation of the commission he appointed. Let those who question the sincerity of the 9,000 Ethiopians observe their Jewish practice and fervent prayers. We American Jews can help answer those prayers by speaking out on their behalf, giving voice to the powerless.
Am Yisrael Chai.