Joseph J. Feit
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Israel has abandoned Ethiopian Jewry

The government allocated no funding at all to bring the thousands who have waited years to be reunited their families
Illustrative: A young Ethiopian woman looks out of the window as she arrives to the Jewish agency compound in Addis Ababa after a 24 hours journey of a group of 46 Falash Mura people from Gondar two weeks before they immigrate to Israel, May 12, 2008. (Michal Fattal/FLASH90)
Illustrative: A young Ethiopian woman looks out of the window as she arrives to the Jewish agency compound in Addis Ababa after a 24 hours journey of a group of 46 Falash Mura people from Gondar two weeks before they immigrate to Israel, May 12, 2008. (Michal Fattal/FLASH90)

The remaining Jews of Ethiopia have no current prospect of leaving. Aliyah is frozen. Two weeks ago, the Israeli government passed a two-year budget that includes no funding for bringing the 12,500 Jews remaining in Ethiopia to Israel. 

This is a devastating blow to the Ethiopian Jewish community in both Israel and Ethiopia. I have traveled to Ethiopia many times over the past 35 years, returning from my latest trip only recently. The community has never been in such anguish. Hundreds of parents who have been separated for decades from their children – some of whom serve in the IDF – are heartbroken. Women whose brothers serve as soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force cannot understand this callous decision. 

The government has no plans to complete the implementation of its 2015 resolution, which mandated the aliyah of thousands of the remaining Ethiopian Jews. Thousands of Ethiopians maternally linked to the Jewish people, who, over the past several decades, have been recognized as Jews by Israeli chief rabbis including Ovadiah Yosef, Mordechai Eliyahu and Shlomo Amar, are not even covered by that resolution. And this by a government dominated by religious parties! 

The decision is not budgetary. Israel managed to find 13 billion shekels (US$3.5b) for discretionary sectoral interests, a large portion for haredi education. According to the last government resolution in 2021, bringing 3,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel would cost only 540 million shekels (US$145m) and that cost would be spread over several years.

For thousands of years, the Jewish people have welcomed the return of Jews who converted to another faith, such as the Marranos; Israel itself approved the aliyah of Iranian Jews from Meshed whose forbears converted to Islam in 1839. The vast majority of the Beta Israel awaiting aliyah in Ethiopia are direct descendants of Ethiopian Jews. Moreover, the majority of Beta Israel awaiting aliyah in Gondar are demonstrably maternally linked as required by Jewish law.  

They have returned to the Jewish faith and, unlike tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews who have made aliyah recently, they have been following Jewish religious customs for many years, including Sabbath observance. When they do succeed in making aliyah, virtually all willingly undergo a formal conversion and a decisive majority send their children to Israel’s religious schools.

Israel’s unreasonably narrow interpretation of the Law of Return should not apply to Beta Israel of indisputable Jewish lineage (checked by the Interior Ministry before immigration visas are granted). Contrary precedent, such as the 1960 case of Brother Daniel, who converted to Christianity and wished to remain a monk, are mistakenly applied to Jews who have chosen to return to the Jewish faith.

But even if the Law of Return is technically inapplicable, the Law of Entry gives Israel ample means to remain faithful to centuries of Jewish law and practice. Israel has admitted tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the past by government decision pursuant to the provisions of this law. Why it is abandoning the last 12,500 Jews, leaving families divided, is a mystery. True, Ethiopian Jews, do not possess PhDs in mathematics and are not from Eastern Europe like the tens of thousands Israel has admitted recently. But past governments acknowledged that the increased cost of absorbing Ethiopian Jews and their unfamiliar ethnicity did not justify violating core Zionist principles. 

The miraculous airlifts implemented by prior Israeli governments – Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 – refuted the antisemitic trope that Zionism is a form of racism. The current government’s immigration policy runs counter to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which guarantees that all Jews, without regard to their educational or occupational status, have the right to immigrate to Israel. 

Appalling conditions

While it must be noted that the Ethiopian government is highly supportive of the community and imposes no obstacles to immigration, the internally displaced Jewish refugees wait under appalling conditions. Many have been waiting for decades. SSEJ, the small organization that provides virtually all of the humanitarian aid to the Jewish communities of Addis and Gondar has limited financial resources and consequently can provide only inadequate assistance, limited primarily to alleviating malnourishment in young children. Israel provides no funding for humanitarian relief. 

American Jewry provides some support: recently Jewish Federations made a generous donation. However, much more is needed. Unfortunately, the official humanitarian relief arm of the American Jewish community, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), provides no assistance to the Jews remaining in Ethiopia, even though it runs programs for non-Jews. The Jewish Agency (JAFI) provides significant assistance only to the few Jews who receive immigration visas during the short time period before they actually make aliyah. The assistance policies of JDC and JAFI may be consistent with the immigration policies of Israel’s Interior Ministry, but they are inconsistent with the views of American Jewry and its religious authorities, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. These policies should be – must be – reversed. 

Israel is the homeland for which the Jews remaining in Ethiopia have yearned for hundreds of years. Israeli officials, hostile to their aliyah, repeatedly note that Israel, as a sovereign nation, is legally entitled to determine its immigration policy. True enough. But the policies they have adopted are cruel and contrary to thousands of years of Jewish precedent. 

Based on its recent budget, it appears that Israel is determined to deny the prayers of the remaining Ethiopian Jews by refusing to allow them to make aliyah. Hopefully, American Jewry, faithful to consistent Jewish law and precedent, will nonetheless honor its sacred independent obligation to provide humanitarian assistance to a fellow Diaspora Jewish community in grave distress.

About the Author
Joseph Feit, an attorney, is currently chairman of SSEJ and a past president of NACOEJ. He is a past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and has been active on issues relating to Ethiopian Jewry for three decades. Feit has received awards from the Knesset, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar for his work on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
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