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Jan Lee

Israel’s forgotten children

Israel should airlift the thousands of Beta Israel descendants in harm's way to join their family members already in the country
A new civil war in Ethiopia's remote Amhara region threatens to cut off food and access to safety for some 6,000 descendants of Israel's Beta Israel community Credit: SSEJ
Civil war in Ethiopia's remote Amhara region could cut off food and access to safety for some 6,000 descendants of Israel's Beta Israel community. (SSEJ)

Last Wednesday, Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer announced that the Israeli government was going to review its policies and restrictions when it comes to the fate of the thousands of Beta Israel descendants in Ethiopia currently in danger, due to civil war. MK Sofer’s announcement came a day after the government released a statement saying it had no immediate plans to restart the emergency airlifts. So for the many families who could soon be caught in the crosshairs of more fighting, a new review of this humanitarian crisis is good news. For sure, it couldn’t come at a more urgent time.

A new state of emergency is in place in the Amhara region that threatens to choke off access to food for some 6,000 Jewish descendants living in Gondar. More than 600,000 civilians have died from fighting in Tigray and that civil war now threatens to engulf the neighboring Amhara region, where most of the Jewish community is based. For many, the recent fighting in Gondar’s streets are a traumatic reminder of how fragile peace has always been in Ethiopia and how risky it is to be part of Ethiopia’s Jewish community. But it is also a haunting reminder that in times of political conflict, Israel — the land where these descendants’ parents and grandparents now live — is the only nation that can, and will stand up to protect Jews from danger.

Israel’s decision to airlift some 15,000 Beta Israel Jews from war-torn Ethiopia in 1991 earned it a respected place in history books. But it also established a link between those Israel helped become Israeli citizens and those left behind in Ethiopia. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins and children who have been born since the Operation Solomon airlift (and the aunts and uncles who have not yet made it on to the roster) now stand in great physical peril. As history has demonstrated more than once, those born of Jewish descent are at just as much risk from antisemitism and violence during political unrest as first-born Jews are, especially if they are adherents to the Jewish faith, as so many of the community’s members are.

But war and antisemitism are not the only threats facing the community right now. Food insecurity, made worse by curfews and an unstable economy, has made the community wholly dependent on nonprofit aid. It is also increasing the risk of child malnutrition, which is a chronic problem for Ethiopia’s Jewish community.

Meketa UK staff organize food stores for distribution during the pandemic. The current civil unrest in the Amhara region is again creating a humanitarian crisis for Gondar’s Jewish community. (Meketa UK)

A full cadre of nonprofit organizations, most of which are privately funded, are the lifeline for the community’s 1,000+ families right now. Each fulfills a unique and essential role to literally, keeping famine at bay.

The British organization, MeketaUK, which was launched about a decade ago to help families create small businesses that they could depend upon while waiting for aliyah, has turned its immediate resources toward raising funds from the public so it can buy emergency shipments of grain that it is then donating to families. Its US partner, Meketa USA assists with these objectives by fundraising and publicizing Meketa’s work in North America. Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ), another US-based organization, provides hot meals for malnourished children and nursing mothers and access to medical care (as well as other services), while Operation Ethiopia brings in Israeli medical expertise to Ethiopia to treat eye diseases that are often caused or made worse by endemic malnutrition and poverty. The North American Conference on Ethiopia Jewry (NACOEJ) also helps bolster the feeding programs and securing of food stocks for the High Holy Days and year-round. And Jewish Agency’s Project Ten volunteers help distribute the much-needed food supplies to the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Israel holds a unique opportunity to repeat its own celebrated history, by airlifting the rest of the Beta Israel that have been waiting to join their family members in Israel. In so doing, it will help reunite families that have been suffering on both ends of this gulf, and more, restate, as it did in 1991, that Jewish values speak louder than economics or politics. Bringing Gondar and Addis Ababa Jewish communities home will honor the promise that Israel made when it became world’s only Jewish homeland: to protect and offer a home to Jews, irrespective of their culture, their traditions, their creed or the tumultuous journey they, and their ancestors, endured while struggling to remain a Jewish people.

More information is available about Meketa UK, Meketa USA, Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, Operation Ethiopia, North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish Agency’s Project 10 is available by clicking on their individual links.

About the Author
Jan Lee's articles and blog posts have appeared in a variety of publications, including B'nai B'rith Magazine, the Jewish Independent (Vancouver, Canada), Baltimore Jewish Times. She is also a regular contributor to various business, environmental and travel publications. Lee lives in British Columbia, Canada.
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