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An open letter to PM Netanyahu: A plea to transform Ethiopian Jews’ dreams into reality

To PM Benjamin Netanyahu: You say you want every Jew to feel at home in Israel, but you have turned your back on those in Gondar and Addis Ababa
Illustrative. Hebrew lessons in the Hatikva Synagogue, Gondar. (Eden David/the Struggle for Ethiopian Jewry))
Illustrative. Hebrew lessons in the Hatikva Synagogue, Gondar. (Eden David/the Struggle for Ethiopian Jewry))

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Although Israeli elections will take place in the middle of September, it is clear that you have a mandate to lead at least until that time. You have passionately and rightly assumed a mantle of leadership of not only the State of Israel but, also, the Nation of Israel. At this critical moment, it is time for you to fulfill commitments that you made to the Jewish community still stranded in Ethiopia.

I was so optimistic when, during your visit to Ethiopia in 2016, you pledged to allow the 8,000 Ethiopian Jews remaining there to move to Israel, and you boldly said, “…we have a commitment and we are keeping it on a humanitarian basis, and on the basis of family reunifications.” Although a small number of them have since made aliyah, when we visited Ethiopia in July, my wife and I were struck as we encountered many of the 7,000 Jews who still languish in small shacks without adequate water, sanitation, electricity and food. This is despite your statement of commitment to bring all of them to Israel. Many of the babies and children of those still stranded there are suffering from malnutrition. Seventy percent of the Jews who anxiously sit and wait have first degree relatives here in Israel. They are waiting for you to keep your commitment.

You have claimed that you want to facilitate the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews, but that Israel’s budget simply cannot afford their absorption. Yet, the government just announced that it is willing to find 50 million shekels to encourage foreign embassies to relocate to Jerusalem. Obviously, funds exist. It is solely a matter of financial priorities for using them. Is it more important to save the lives of this remnant of Jews who deserve our help, or to relocate embassies to Jerusalem?

You have rightly proclaimed that Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people. You have urged Jews suffering in the Diaspora to make aliyah and to secure a safe haven in their land: Israel. You have aided many of those who needed help to make aliyah. You have encouraged them. In fact, you have even wooed them. You claimed in a recent Time Magazine interview that “…I want every Jew to feel at home in Israel.” But, noticeably you have essentially turned your back on the Jews living in Gondar and Addis Ababa.

When visiting foreign countries, you have strengthened the ties between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora by meeting with them and offering support — both tangible and emotional. These gestures are praiseworthy. But how do you think the Jews in Ethiopia felt when, in 2016, you made your first and only visit to Ethiopia and could not find time to meet, even briefly, with a small delegation from the Jewish community? The searing pain of not being granted a visa for aliyah is only compounded by being ignored. When we were in Gondar at the end of July, we heard the prayers at the daily mincha service of nearly 1,600 Jews yearning to come to Israel that you did not hear. We saw the pained faces of members of the community whom you chose not to encounter. Their pain resulted from separation from their children or parents who now live in Israel.

Because you did not visit with the community in Gondar, as we did at the end of July, you did not see the faces of nursing mothers who trudge to the synagogue daily to obtain supplementary food to enrich their children’s nutritional needs. Without that support, the babies would suffer malnutrition. Because you did not meet with the community, you did not encounter children who receive lunch through a program funded by donors in North America. This year they received a small hard-boiled egg, a small boiled potato, a small banana and a roll. Yet, as hungry as they were, many children divided their food to set aside a portion in a bag so that they would have something other than daily porridge for dinner. You did not see it, but we did!

Because you did not visit with the community in Addis Ababa, as we did last year, you did not meet the wizened men and women who are lonely to see their children and other relatives in Israel. Despair would be a natural reaction, but, yet, they end every morning service by standing and singing “Hatikvah” and “Am Yisrael Chai.”

I know that there are those in your government who challenge the fact that all of the members of the Jewish community of Ethiopia are actually Jewish. It is interesting that leading rabbinic authorities for many years already in the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform Movements have regarded them as Jews. Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had ruled that they are, indeed, Jewish. Yet, in an attempt to remove doubts, Ethiopian Jews routinely undergo conversion upon arriving in Israel. As the leader of the government, it is time for you to respond to these specious challenges.

The Jews of Ethiopia have a quest to live their lives in Israel and to contribute to its growth and greatness. During our visit, we admired the 1,900 children from the ages of 6 to 18 who are spending their school vacation in a kaytana — summer day-camp in Gondar. As part of the program, there are classes for learning Hebrew. As I sat in one class that was studying the narrative of the biblical leader Joseph, I had tears in my eyes when the teacher (a young volunteer from Israel), put Hebrew words on the board to describe Joseph’s leadership and to teach Hebrew. The first word was “hunger.” The second word was “dream.” What an amazing juxtaposition for Ethiopian Jews! They are suffering the pangs of hunger. Yet, that does not stop them from having dreams of aliyah. Diaspora Jews must accept the challenge of ending the hunger. The challenge for you is to begin transforming their dreams into reality.

About the Author
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1970 and holds Doctorate in Education from Temple University. He served as CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for 23 years before his retirement. Now, dividing his time between Jerusalem and Florida, he is the President of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry NACOEJ. He is married with 3 children and 5 grandchildren.
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