What Will it Take for the Last Jewish Communities in Ethiopia to Return to Israel?

April 25, 2018

7 min read

Aaron (A.Y.)  Katsof made aliyah from the U.S. to “build the heart of Israel.” But when he recently visited the last standing Jewish Ethiopian communities in Gondar and Addis Ababa, he was not prepared for what he saw. Now, he has a second mission: to bring these Ethiopians home to Israel.

The mission was infused with “meaningful moments,” as Katsof called them. One morning, he was speaking to a 20-year old woman who was born on the way to Israel, from Ethiopia. Because she didn’t have the correct newborn documentation, she was not permitted to enter Israel. Her father was given the heart wrenching choice to continue onto Israel, and have a better chance at advocating for her immigration from the Jewish State, or going back to Ethiopia with his wife and newly born daughter. He named his daughter Kalkidon (meaning “promise” in Amharic) reflecting his promise to fight for his wife and daughter’s immigration from his new home in Israel.

As Katsof spoke with Kalkidon in Ethiopia, with her own child on her lap, she told him of her challenges in Ethiopia, of being a single mother, of her father’s recent passing in Israel, and of her never ending yearning to make aliyah.

According to Katsof, Kalkidon is just one of 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia who are waiting to come back home to their Biblical homeland.

“They have relatives in Israel, speak Hebrew, learn the Bible after school, keep Shabbat and kashrut, and after prayers every day, they say, “Next year in Jerusalem” and sing “Am Yisrael Chai” and the Israeli national anthem.

“They are yearning and hoping and longing to come to Israel, to complete the prophecy from Isaiah 43 of returning to Israel, but cannot,” Katsof told Breaking Israel News.

Isaiah 43:2-9 reads:

“When you pass through water, I will be with you; Through streams, They shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, You shall not be scorched; Through flame, It shall not burn you. For I Hashem am your God, The Holy One of Yisrael, your Savior. I give Egypt as a ransom for you, Ethiopia and Saba in exchange for you. Because you are precious to Me, And honored, and I love you, I give men in exchange for you And peoples in your stead. Fear not, for I am with you: I will bring your folk from the East, Will gather you out of the West; I will say to the North, “Give back!” And to the South, “Do not withhold! Bring My sons from afar, And My daughters from the end of the earth— All who are linked to My name, Whom I have created, Formed, and made for My glory— Setting free that people, Blind though it has eyes And deaf though it has ears.” All the nations assemble as one, The peoples gather. Who among them declared this, Foretold to us the things that have happened? Let them produce their witnesses and be vindicated, That men, hearing them, may say, “It is true!””

Katsof said the perspective of these Ethiopian Jews was one of the “most powerful things” he had ever seen.

“When I brought up the idea of aliyah, they would say ‘b’ezrat hashem,’ with the help of God,” Katsof said. “Even though they have nothing, they have pure faith in God, and they are happy. They know God will bring them back, and to see that was worth the whole trip, it changed my life perspective.”

As much as Katsof felt inspired by the Ethiopian Jews’ intense yearning for Israel, he was equally as horrified at their living conditions in Ethiopia.

Between November 1988 and May 1991, 150,000 Ethiopian Jews moved closer to Addis Ababa, the center for aliyah activities in Ethiopia. Most Ethiopian Jews sold their homes in their villages and made the sometimes month-long trek by foot for a better chance at organizing their aliyah documents and fleeing the country. But by moving to Ethiopian cities, said Katsof, they had to leave everything behind and accept very bad living conditions and poverty.

“Most live in little mud huts, have no bathing facilities, wear one pair of clothes per year, receive three jugs of drinking water once a week, have just three hours a day of light for power, and no running water. Because they have no bathrooms, they go in the forest or, if they are lucky, they have a shared outhouse with approximately 10 other families,” he told Breaking Israel News. “For food, adults, including nursing and pregnant women, eat injera, which provides no real nourishment. Kids up till the age of five are given more food, such as bread, porridge, eggs, and potatoes, but still, 70 percent of the children are malnourished.”

He called seeing the conditions “traumatic.”

Upon his return to Israel, Katsof launched a campaign to feed the community now, and eventually to “bring them home.”

Katsof explained that the Israeli government has not yet given them approval to immigrate like the more than 22,000 Ethiopian Jews before them who immigrated during Operation Moses in 1984 and 1985,  a major covert operation that brought over 8,000 Ethiopians through Sudan and Brussels, and Operation Solomon in May 1991, an Israeli operation that brought 14,000 Ethiopians over in just 34 hours. Katsof believes one of the reasons they have not been brought to Israel is “institutionalized racism – they are black. If they were white, they would be here along time ago.”

Dov Lipman, former Member of Knesset and Director of Public Diplomacy in the WZO Vice-Chairman’s Office, is similarly passionate about bringing the last Jewish communities of Ethiopia home to Israel, especially those who have immediate relatives here. He said that after visiting Ethiopia and learning that many have brothers, sisters, and children in Israel, he realized that “it is our responsibility as Jews and as humans to bring their immediate family members.”

But Lipman does not believe that the inaction is a result of racism.

“I don’t think Israel as a government entity can be labeled as racist,” Lipman told Breaking Israel News. “The Ethiopians are black, they are African, and we brought thousands of them here to Israel,” he maintained.

Rather, Lipman said, the reason for inaction towards this objective could be two fold:

“I do think that leaders consciously or subconsciously look at the Ethiopian immigrations and see that we have failed largely in their acclimation and immigration to Israel and government leaders look at that and think to themselves, ‘why do we need more of a headache?’ Not because they are black or we are racist, but because the integration has been so difficult, why bring more people?”

In that case, Lipman said, “Let’s make the acclimation better. We can’t shirk our responsibilities here because of our fears of integration into Israel. The remaining Ethiopians are so passionate about Israel, they are singing songs about Yerushalayim with tears in their eyes, begging and crying to come home.”

Jewish Ethiopian Kids Show Israel Pride
(Photo Credit: Aaron Katsof)

Another possible explanation for Israeli inaction is that “there is no ministry taking responsibility, so the decision falls to the seat of the Prime Minister to do what is right.”

Indeed, Breaking Israel News reached out to the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Population and Migration Authority for comment, but each recommended contacting a different ministry or did not respond.

According to Lipman, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has made no serious efforts to reunite family members, perhaps because of the ongoing discussion over whether the remaining Ethiopian Jews are Jewish according to Jewish law. The remaining 9,000 Jews in Ethiopia are largely part of the Falash Mura, descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. And while the government approved bringing the remaining 9,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 2016, “the agreement is not necessarily being kept to and there is a lot of back and forth about their [halakhic] legitimacy,” Lipman told Breaking Israel News.

Aaron Katsoff takes a photograph with Jewish Ethiopian Kids (Photo Credit: Aaron Katsof)

But the former MK added, “It doesn’t matter if we made a mistake in the past [by bringing potentially non-Jewish Ethiopian Jews to Israel] and they are not Jewish. They are contributing to our country, so how can we keep their families separated? No matter what, we have to bring the rest of them here.”

To bring the community to Israel, Katsof has made a series of  videos to educate the American and Christian Diaspora, who he said were central to aiding the Israeli government to take the Ethiopian Jews in during the 1990s.

Indeed, Operation Moses was the brainchild of then Associate U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, Richard Krieger, who came up with the idea of an airlift and working with the Israeli Mossad and Sudanese representatives to assist with the Operation.

In 1985, all 100 United States senators signed a secret petition to President Ronald Reagan to resume Operation Moses, which was previously stopped by Sudan because of pressure from other Muslim countries. In the follow up mission, Vice President George H. W. Bush sent six U.S. Air Force planes to bring 500 Ethiopians to Israel who had sought refuge in Sudan from a severe famine in their country.

Torah Class After School
(Photo Credit: Aaron Katsof)

Some 1,300 Ethiopian Jews were also brought to Israel in 2017 with the Jewish Agency on aliyah flights sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). In 2017, the ICEJ invested $1.2 million in Ethiopian aliyah, including additional funds to assist with the critical absorption phase as these Jewish communities adjust to the new language and culture of Israel.

Christians from all over the world have been contributing to this humanitarian cause, including generous donations from African Christians. Once approved by the Israeli government, ICEJ has said that they stand ready to raise the funds need to sponsor the renewed Ethiopian aliyah.

Lipman foresees that while the U.S. support could help, what is most needed is an Israeli prime minister who believes that bringing the remaining Ethiopian Jews over to Israel is the right thing to do.

“It will require a prime minister with spirit, passion, and a vision of who we want to be, what we want to be, and a responsibility to all Jews,” he said. “This is a stain on Israel for not reuniting families. The fact that it hasn’t been done immediately without hesitation raises a question of who we are. I don’t believe that we are bad, but we are distracted from doing what is right.”

Lipman said Israel should prioritize the budget toward this cause.

“I think if people knew what was happening, and there were a strong advocacy movement from Israel and around the world, politicians would do something to bring them home,” said Katsof. “Even after 20 years of waiting, they could come back this year. History is being written.”


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