On Wednesday, a plane carrying 181 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants touched down at Ben Gurion Airport as the government resumed Operation Tzur Yisrael (Rock of Israel), a plan to allow 3,000 Ethiopian Jews to make Aliyah in the coming months.
The new arrivals received a special welcoming ceremony, and emotions were high as many of the travelers waited to be reunited with family members they hadn’t seen in years, even decades. Immigration to Israel from Addis Ababa has been sporadic since 1991 when Israel carried out a daring rescue mission called Operation Solomon. Elana and I landed that same weekend in Israel—my first time here—unaware of the arriving VIPs from the south. The massive airlift—dozens of planes flying non-stop for 36 hours from Ethiopia to Israel—brought more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews (including 8 babies born on the way!) to Israel.
Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who is herself a native Ethiopian, has pushed hard for the immigration from the African nation to begin again. Israel has repeatedly declared the immigration from Ethiopia finished during the last few decades. But when civil war flared up again in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the path to a new life in Israel opened again.
Tamano-Shata accompanied the new immigrants on their flight to Israel Wednesday.
“When I look at these children and their parents, and I hear their stories, their struggle is my struggle – and it must be the struggle of all Israel,” Tamano-Shata said. “We just need to do the right thing.”
Despite the shaky future of the current government, Tamano-Shata is working hard to see Operation Tzur Yisrael completed and reunite all those who have been separated from their loved ones, and bring home others who have been waiting to make Aliyah for years.
“I have an agreement with [Finance Minister Avigdor] Liberman that we will bring all those with first-degree [relatives] – he will find the money, the budget,” the minister said. “Once and for all, we will end the saga and bring a solution.”
While it is estimated that 40,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to the Land since the 1990s, there has also been a lot of resistance from the more conservative sectors of Israel—regarding whether the remaining Ethiopian Jews are really still Jewish. Some are Falash Mura—Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity to escape persecution there. So, in addition to learning Hebrew, the new immigrants—most of whom consider themselves Jewish—agree to go through a 10-month conversion process as a condition of making Aliyah.
Wednesday’s flight marks the first return of what has been promised to be 3,000 “olim” (immigrants) between now and November. Operation Tzur Yisrael, which had previously brought 2,000 Ethiopians to Israel, was halted in March 2021 when a lawsuit was filed by the right-wing Israeli Immigration Policy Center to block further immigration from Ethiopia. In March of this year, the High Court rejected the lawsuit, opening the doors again for Aliyah from the African country.
While the flight Wednesday (and another was scheduled to land on Thursday) was a start, some advocates were not satisfied with the progress, especially in the light of the ongoing immigration wave from Ukraine.
“The government of Israel still treats Ethiopian Jews as second-class Jews… if they can bring over 20,000 people from Ukraine in a month, they can certainly bring half that from Ethiopia,” said Uri Perednik, chairman of the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah.
Making Aliyah to Israel is not free or cheap. Private Jewish agencies and foundations often help with the expense of the flight and all the paperwork, health screenings, etc., required before arrival. But then, once someone arrives, the government kicks in, footing the bill for housing for a while, language classes, and other services people need to adapt to life in Israel. Right now, $170 million has been earmarked to pay for the absorption of the 3,000 new Ethiopian immigrants expected by November. Given the skyrocketing cost of housing in Israel, most of that budget will be eaten up by rent.
“In my eyes, the immigration is the easy part,” said Avtamo Yosef, a native Ethiopian who came to Israel as part of Operation Solomon. He now heads the Ethiopian immigration department at the Jewish Agency. “The absorption is the complicated part.”
Assimilation into Israeli culture and society as an immigrant is never easy, but for those coming from Ethiopia, it has been a particular struggle. Thankfully, the generations born here have started to thrive. Their community is close-knit, the people are beautiful, and their traditional foods are amazing! Elana and I have fallen in love with the precious Ethiopian people in Ashkelon, and MMI has raised funds to build a 50-person bomb shelter at their community center; and for the children who study there, 20 computers and 80 tablets! All thanks to our awesome MMI partners!
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