After 80,000 members of the remnant Falash Mura community in Ethiopia have settled in Israel, the Netanyahu government has approved the aliyah of only 1,000 of the remaining 8,200 – who remain under very difficult conditions.
The decision has caused bitter disappointment among the community in Addis Ababa and Gondar and their supporters in Israel, as they have been yearning to come for two decades and most of them have close relatives living there. The announcement contradicted the government’s commitment in 2015 to bring all of the remaining members of the community to Israel.
But despite this unanimous decision three years ago, the Prime Minister’s Office then refused to implement the program because the NIS 1 billion ($284 million) it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
As a result of a famine caused by a civil war, some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued from Sudan via Brussels in a secret Israeli mission called Operation Moses between November 21, 1984 to January 5, 1985. Over those seven weeks, more than 30 flights brought some 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time to Ben-Gurion Airport.
This emergency exodus was followed in May 1991 by Operation Solomon, in which 14,325 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in only 36 hours. It was then thought that all of Beta Israel had come home. But it turned out that thousands of Falash Mura had been left behind. The remnants of the descendants of the Jewish Beta Israel community, who were forcibly converted by Christian missionaries and others in years of famine, upheaval and ethnic strife in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – they were not eligible for inclusion under Israel’s Law of Return.
A veteran pediatrician who visited the Falash Mura earlier this year has warned that many of the babies and toddlers suffer from malnutrition, stunted growth and irreversible brain damage. At the request of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, Prof. Arthur Eidelman – the retired head of pediatrics at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center – spent two weeks in Gondar province to examine the young children of the Falash Mura, who live in cities and thus cannot grow their own food. Eidelman’s aim was to update and assess the nutritional status of youngsters from birth to age and compare it those from his previous visits. “It is urgent to bring to Israel families with children under the age of five who are suffering from undernutrition and subsequent brain damage. Children, in this case, should get higher priority than the elderly,” he said.
About 75% of the would-be immigrants have parents, children, brothers or sisters who are Israeli citizens, many of whom serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Those left behind are eager to convert officially to Judaism when they come to Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced recently that another 1,000 members of the Falash Mura community still living in Ethiopia will be brought to the Jewish homeland, instructing Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to draft a government resolution to carry out the decision.
“I am happy to announce to you that I have decided that we should bring approximately 1,000 members of the [Falash Mura] community whose children are already here,” Netanyahu said, referring to them as “a beloved community which is part of our people and part of our state.”
“This is not a simple decision due to other consequences we have of the community from Ethiopia, but I am determined to do this,” the prime minister declared, adding that his government brought 1,300 Falash Mura to Israel in 2015.
The Israeli cabinet discussed the matter three times earlier in 2018, but no decision had been taken. The Committee for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews rapped the prime minister’s decision to leave behind most of the community, saying that many had close relatives who would be refused despite the government’s promises and would remain separated from them.
Because the Interior Ministry does not regard the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they can’t make aliyah under the Law of Return and must therefore get special government approval to be allowed in. Some opponents of their aliyah claim that tens of thousands of Ethiopians with no Jewish heritage might claim eligibility under this process.
A.Y. Katsof, an activist in the Heart of Israel organization that promotes settlement in Judea and Samaria, visited the Falash Mura communities in April, July and plans to go again this month. “I don’t recall that the Israeli government set a quota on the number on Jews from Russia or America or France who could come on aliyah. Why is it doing so from those in Ethiopia? These people, yearning to come to Israel, don’t have enough water or basic food and medicine. I saw it with my own eyes,” added Katsof.
“It is the prime minister who decides on this. Almost all Knesset members signed a petition to bring the Falash Mura. But he has a lot of pressure on him from the ultra-Orthodox [haredi] parties. The late former chief rabbi of Israel who was the spiritual leader of the Shas Party – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – declared decades ago after intensively studying the issue that the Beta Israel and Falash Mura communities are Jewish, but Rabbi Yosef died five years ago. Today, the haredi rabbis have questioned their Judaism and oppose their coming,” Katsof charged.
Today, Rabbi Yosef’s son Yitzhak Yosef is Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, but he does not have enough power to change the government’s decision. “Ovadia Yosef did everything he could for the Jews in Ethiopia. But now Deri is the interior minister and under the power of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis.” Advocates for the cause have periodically been demonstrating outside Deri’s Jerusalem home, but to no avail.
The prime minister can “tell the ultra-Orthodox rabbis now that he is allowing in only 1,000. And at the same time, he can tell the activists on behalf of the Falash Mura that he had an ‘achievement’ – that he is bringing 1,000 home.”
He added that the Falash Mura “are wonderful people – so gentle – and many have been waiting for two decades in mud huts in Addis and Gondar compounds after selling their homes. From nails on the walls hang pictures of their loved ones living in Israel. When I was there and saw their deeply felt Jewish observance, I felt less Jewish than they are,” Katsof noted. Most of the young people already speak Hebrew; most of the 80,000 who previously were permitted to make aliyah didn’t speak a word of the language.”
Katsof says that the lobby on behalf of the Falash Mura is not strong enough and that the Israeli public don’t know enough about them. “Public opinion can help. In the past, the Beta Israel and Falash Mura were met at Ben-Gurion Airport by dignitaries and regarded as heroes. Knesset members would fight over who could speak to them at the airport. Today, the politicians don’t care anymore,” he said.
“The problem is not financial – it’s political. If some organization offered money to help absorb them, it could help – as absorbing 7,000 more people over three years could cost about $10,000 per person. But money is not what is keeping the government from deciding to bring all of them. When they all are finally brought home, long-term medical treatment for the children who suffer brain damage due to malnutrition would cost much more than if they were brought now.”
He added that some Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews in Israel who remember the Falash Mura in the 1980s got the impression that they were living as Christians. But their opposition is based on misinformation. They lived as Jews. The Kessim [Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders] who met them changed their minds.”
To influence Israeli public opinion, he wants to bring a famous Israeli singer to Ethiopia to visit the Falash Mura community. We will put a film clip on the Internet, and there will be four or five million ‘hits.’ It could change minds,” said the Heart of Israel activist.
“During my visit in April, I found a Jewish community like the one I had always imagined of the Jewish people 2,500 years ago – individuals following the pure Jewish faith straight out of the Bible, completely disconnected from technology and the world. Families live in one-room mud huts, which serve as bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens for the whole family. There is no running water and there are no toilets. But in almost every house, there is a corner set up separately with Shabbat candles.
In every house, one nail per family member is tapped into the wall. And on those nails hang one garment for every person. Next to those hooks, hang picture frames, and inside them are photographs of their loved ones who have already immigrated to Israel. ‘This is my daughter, this is my father, these are my grandchildren who serve as fighters in the Israel Defense Forces, but I was told I could not go with them. ‘Why?’ one older woman said to me.”
Katsof continued that “the community is deeply committed to Judaism. I heard the children sing Hatikvah and Next Year in Jerusalem. On Shabbat, they danced the traditional Ethiopian shoulder dance to the melody of Lecha Dodi. Throughout the week, there were Torah classes and minyanim three times a day with Amharic translation.”