David Breakstone
Deputy Chairman of the Jewish Agency executive
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8,000 empty chairs

Israel's government faces numerous intractable problems. There is one it could solve overnight: bringing our Ethiopian brethren home
Emey in Gondar with one of the daughters she didn't need to leave behind
Emey in Gondar with one of the daughters she didn't need to leave behind

The last of some 400 members of the Ethiopian Jewish community to arrive in Israel since the beginning of the year landed this week just in time to celebrate their first Passover in the Jewish state. The taste of freedom. A cause for joy. But the stark reality is that there are another 8,000 of their brethren – and ours – still languishing in Addis Ababa and Gondor with no indication whatsoever when their longing for “next year in Jerusalem” will be fulfilled. Virtually all of them have relatives in Israel and the affliction of families separated – oftentimes for decades –  is again being felt at the Seder table on both sides of the sea.

The anguish they feel was brought home to me during a recent visit to the Absorption Center in Beersheva, where 249 of the Ethiopian olim are resident. It was an inspiring experience, but also heart-wrenching, as there I happened upon Emey – for the second time.

The first was in Gondar back in January, when I met her and her husband Melkamu in their single-room, dirt-floor mud hut where they lived with three of their children without toilet, kitchen, running water, gas or electricity.  This time it was in a fully-equipped two-room Israeli apartment. But on both occasions she met me with tears. As deeply appreciative as she is of being here with some of her family, she is distraught about having had to leave her two married daughters behind due to regulations stipulated by the Israeli government.

“Please,” she begged me back in Ethiopia, “let my daughters come with me too.”

On this visit, she beseeched me again: “When are you going to bring me my children?”

The story is this. After being stranded in Gondar for 12 years awaiting permission to make aliyah, she was finally brought to Israel in February together with her husband and three of her children, finally to be reunited with an older daughter who was allowed to move here 10 years ago and whom she hadn’t seen since. It should have been an occasion of unmitigated joy. It wasn’t.

The reason? The most recent government decree regarding the remnant of Ethiopian Jewry abandoned in Gondar and Addis Ababa was to bring a thousand of them to Israel in 2019. That‘s the good news. The bad news is twofold.

First, even the full implementation of this decision would leave another 7,500 of the community behind, all of whom have been waiting for somewhere from eight to 22 years in the harshest of conditions to make aliyah. Second, the criteria determining who may come and who may not include a condition that is callous and cruel. Those with children already in Israel are being allowed to come and to bring their unmarried children with them, but their married children – and thus their grandchildren as well – will have to be left behind. In the name of family reunification, we are tearing families apart. Emey’s and Melkamu’s among them.

This stain on an otherwise glorious chapter in the annals of the Zionist enterprise should be the cause for public outrage and profound embarrassment. The flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv takes all of four and a half hours. Ethiopian Airlines flies back and forth twice a day. The price of a one-way ticket is less than $350.00. So why are they still there?

We owe Emey and  Melkamu an answer. The Jewish Agency is determined to provide one. At its meetings in February, it adopted a resolution calling upon the Government to expedite the Aliyah of the remnants of the community. We look forward to working in cooperation with the new one towards that end. In the meantime, to the traditional refrain of the Haggadah, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” this year I am reciting an additional prayer: “Let all who long to come home enter our gates.” I also plan on leaving an empty chair at my seder table for Emey’s and Melkamu’s daughters who, along with 8,000 others, are still awaiting their personal Exodus. I urge you to do the same.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel and the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center in Jerusalem. He also serves as a member of the executives of the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF) and Keren Hayesod. The opinions expressed herein are entirely his own.
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