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What Ethiopian aliyah means for Jewish peoplehood

A recent trip to Ethiopia made it clear that we must expand our old definition of 'who is a Jew,' or risk mistaking our Jewish family for strangers in our midst
Shacharit prayer services in Gondar, Ethiopia. (courtesy)

For as long as I’ve been involved in Jewish organizational leadership, I’ve seen the almost quintessential photos of an El Al plane landing at Ben Gurion Airport, and a cohort of olim (new immigrants) emerging – originating from France or Argentina or New York – descending the staircase of the plane, grabbing hold of an Israeli flag, for the first time as a new citizen. Seeing these photos online or even in books has served as a source of pride in the modern state of Israel – a place welcoming of Jews from every corner of the world. So, when the opportunity arose to fly with a group of new olim from Ethiopia to Israel, I of course leapt at the chance.

While I certainly wasn’t prepared for the moment of stepping off the plane, I most definitely was not prepared for the leadership mission trip to Ethiopia that would precede the Olim flight. On one hand I was eager to join with leaders from around the world through the Jewish Agency’s stakeholder organizations: The World Zionist Organization, Keren HaYesod, and Jewish Federations of North America. On the other, deeply skeptical if the highly curated itinerary would allow us to really see the situation on the ground in both Addis Ababa and Gondar. I read books and recounts of the heroic missions of Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon in the 1980s that bravely airlifted over 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but this was not a military operation, this was a leadership mission of the Jewish organizational world, and was being done in broad daylight, in the company of reporters, not covertly in the middle of the night.

I anticipated being able to come back from the mission and writing an emotional yet upbeat, cheery, and possibly naïve post/blog about the trip, with a near-fairy tale happy ending of bringing 180 Ethiopian Olim to Israel, the beginning of the final Ethiopian aliyah (immigration). And while optically, that may have been what took place, it has taken me over a month to try and make sense of what I saw and experienced during the few days we spent on the ground in Ethiopia. And still, I have far more questions than answers.

The gravity of the trip started to sink in the day before departing on the midnight flight from Tel Aviv to Addis. I was sitting at a dinner hosted by the Mayor of Jerusalem in conjunction with Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) which coincidentally is also the day of observance for those who died on the way from Ethiopia to Israel. While talking about the trip with a new acquaintance at the table, he immediately scoffed at the notion that we would do this, claiming that “they” (the Ethiopian olim) will come to Israel “only to build churches,” insinuating that all of the “real Jews” had left Ethiopia in the 80s, and those left were opportunistically presenting as Jewish only to escape Ethiopia, after which they would continue their Christian practice in Israel. I was both shocked and horrified by these seemingly racist comments, but deep-down wondering if I had totally miscalculated the altruistic nature of this trip.

The discord between perception and reality, myth, and fact, being right and doing right would carry with me throughout the week. Nonetheless, on Sunday night we departed Ben Gurion Airport to Addis Ababa for the trip that would resume Operation Zur Yisrael, the mission to bring the final wave of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

After landing in Addis Ababa, we joined with the full global delegation and boarded a small turboprop plane to Gondar, a region home to some of the historically Jewish communities in Ethiopia. Unannounced, we were met on the tarmac by the Mayor of Gondar and his entourage, as well as a ceremonial marching band, dancers, and then an impromptu welcome ceremony in the “VIP” section of the airport, which felt more like someone’s living room than a terminal of a regional airport. This is where the first of the perception vs. reality scenarios came into focus. Why would the Mayor of Gondar roll out the red carpet for us? A group of mostly North American Jewish leaders whose sole purpose of visiting Gondar was to exfiltrate 180 of his constituents. Seemingly this made no sense. Was he excited to have such a large group of tourists? Was he happy these members of the Jewish community were finally leaving after a multi-year waiting period? Was it just a slow news day? The first of many questions still unanswered.

After landing, we boarded a convoy of jeeps to the village of Ataye, one of the former Jewish communities and location of one of the restored synagogues. It was impossible to ignore that our convoy was flanked on all sides by at least 40 Ethiopian soldiers armed with AK-47s. The nearly-30-vehicle motorcade drew great interest from the children and women who were walking on the adjacent paths and fields. This 30-minute drive on mostly unpaved roads was when the pervasive poverty of the region set in. I shared a jeep with Sigal Kanotopsky, the Jewish Agency representative in Philadelphia who was born in Ethiopia. She was able to translate the Amharic words of the children who would come up to the jeep and run alongside it – most of the asking for rides home as they were in the process of a multi hour walk to/from work and school.

When we arrived in Ataye, we disembarked the Jeeps to make our way into the synagogue building. Our arrival had drawn a large crowd of people living in the village. In between us and the residents was the caravan of armed soldiers. I couldn’t help wondering what they were protecting us against. What danger did the residents pose to us? What would this look like through their eyes? In the synagogue, we were briefed by Micha Feldmann, the former Jewish Agency representative in Ethiopia and architect of Operation Solomon. He started to tell a bit about his first visits to Ethiopia as well as his take on our collective obligation to bring the “rest” of the Ethiopian Jews home to Israel. This notion of “the rest” would prove to be a challenging concept for the rest of the trip. Who are “the rest?” Why hadn’t they made aliyah already? Were they really Jewish? If so, by whose standards?

Synagogue in Attaye. (Andrew Keene)

After Ataye, we traveled to Kossoye where we had the powerful opportunity to see the vista looking into Sudan from Ethiopia. This stretch was where many thousands of Jews fled through to reach the Israeli airlift efforts. Over a thousand died in the process, including many young children. It was a painful reminder of the history of Ethiopian Jews and provided a clarifying moment to reflect on the sacrifices made, heroic efforts undertaken, and a clarion call-to-action for “finishing” the project undertaken by the Jewish People decades earlier to bring the entirety of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel.

The next morning, we traveled to the center of Jewish activity in Gondar where the Jewish Agency offices are located and have been for decades. In addition, the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jews (SSEJ) Center is located here. The SSEJ center is a community center, food bank, and synagogue. They offer social services for those waiting to go to Israel as well as provide basic Jewish education courses. The organized emerged after many legacy organizations like the JDC ended their operations after the missions in the 80s when the aliyah from Ethiopia was declared “finished.”

We were there on a Torah-reading day, so we participated in a shacharit service with well over 1,000 members of the community in attendance, seated gender separated, men and boys wrapped in tallitot and tefillin. The service was led in Amharic and Hebrew and included a Torah reading on the men’s side. It was a surreal experience. Many scholars have cited the Ethiopian Jewish community as practicing the closest thing there is to Biblical Judaism there still is, having been considered one of the lost tribes for thousands of years. Over time, their practice has become closer to modern Judaism as international organizations and clergy have involved themselves with the community. All the 1,000+ members of the community present were waiting for the determination of the Israeli Government as to their aliyah status and the Jewish Agency’s facilitation of their travel to Israel. Our experience Monday morning prompted more questions. Who decides if they can come to Israel? Why does it take so long? Doesn’t the Law of Return guarantee any Jew the right to make aliyah immediately?

Shacharit in Gondar. (Andrew Keene)

A 10-minute walk from the SSEJ center is the Jewish Agency complex. It was here that we learned in more detail the process by which someone can immigrate from Ethiopia to Israel, and hard truths started to emerge about the current situation in Ethiopia. The process for individuals currently still in Ethiopia starts in Israel. Why? According to the Law of Return, no one currently in Ethiopia is eligible for aliyah by virtue of how many generations removed they are from the original Beta Israel Jewish community. In fact, the community that remains are the descendants of those that converted to Christianity over a century ago, many whom did so under significant duress. These individuals have often been called the Falash Mura, a term now widely seen as derogatory and ill-informed. Despite practicing and embracing Judaism, Israeli Law of Return does not extend to them. It was only because of a government decision in 2020, pushed strongly by aliyah minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, that up to 3,000 more members of the community were approved for aliyah on the grounds of family reunification in Israel. As such, family in Israel must open a case to bring their family member(s) in Ethiopia to Israel.

JAFI Complex in Gondar. (Andrew Keene)

After this occurs, their case is adjudicated according to the criteria stipulated in the government decision. If it is favorable, the Jewish Agency takes over their preparation which includes paperwork, health checks, packing of belongings, and coordination with absorption efforts in Israel, and of course the flight. The funding for this middle phase of the process comes entirely from the global Jewish community through the Jewish Agency and its constituencies. In the Jewish Agency complex, we met many families in this process and many wearing their finest, with packed belongings, who would be on our flight to Tel Aviv the following day. The center was nearly silent – the mingled sense of hope and fear, excitement and anxiety was palpable. Many of the families have been waiting for a government decision for years and yet had to put full trust in the Jewish Agency to facilitate this protracted process. It became clear that the community in Ethiopia was at the center of a raging political and ideological debate in Israel, which resulted in a temporary injunction last year to stop this ongoing effort, citing that continuing to bring the “Falash Mura” to Israel will lead to a never-ending migration of non-Law of Return-eligible individuals from Ethiopia. Seeing the community in person clarified that even though Operation Zur Yisrael is being billed as the final wave of Ethiopian aliyah, that many thousands more remain.

Packed belongings of Ethiopian Olim. (Andrew Keene)

That night, we returned to Addis Ababa where we met Minister Tamano-Shata for dinner. She talked about her story as an Ethiopian Jew and said in no uncertain terms that under her leadership the Jewish people will leave no one behind in Ethiopia. And in a government as unstable as Israel’s, her insistence in exchange for participation in the coalition might be enough to guarantee many future waves of immigration.

These questions kept me up the final night before leaving. I couldn’t help deliberating on the question if they were in fact Jewish, if our obligation to the community was purely humanitarian, and was there a valid point to the never-ending nature of the situation. Still unresolved, the next morning we met at the airport with the families making aliyah and started the security process to board the flight. I couldn’t help noticing that all the Ethiopians were carrying Laissez Passer documents, effectively a one-way ticket out of Ethiopia, an effective forfeiture of their Ethiopian citizenship. It was a stark contrast to our blue passports which would guarantee us re-entry to our country of birth and citizenship within a few days’ time.

The four-hour flight was unlike any other. The excitement and anxiousness was ever-present. And yet, we had time to sing, and chat, move around, color, pass out stickers, and more. We landed in Israel and instantly, the 180 Ethiopians became Israel’s newest citizens with full rights and status. We started to deplane and within a few minutes it was my turn to approach the door, being led by an 8-year-old boy eager to grab hold of an Israeli flag. We descended the staircase of the Boeing jumbo jet, and instantly became emotional seeing the ceremony from the other side for the first time. The significance of this trip instantly became clear, the role of the modern state of Israel for Jews escaping war-torn countries, and the unique nature of Jewish peoplehood clarified.

Arriving in Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport. (Andrew Keene)

The moment at the airport was fleeting. Within an hour, we had made our way to the terminal, boarded busses, and the delegation from JAFI settled into a more familiar setting, a Tel Aviv beachside hotel. The 180 Ethiopians we traveled with were still being processed in the Olim Hall and would eventually make it to the Absorption Centers where they will spend up to two years integrating into Israeli society, including an Orthodox conversion (a topic for another day).

The next day, our last day in Israel, some of the reality of the trip started to sink in when I read one of the headlines written by one of the reporters on the trip which read “After decades of waiting, 300 of Ethiopia’s Falash Mura to leave for Israel this week.” I was shocked that after being in Ethiopia, seeing the conditions, establishing facts on the ground, that the headline was played right into the hand of those looking weaponizing a racist, ill-informed reading of history.

The nature of Jewish peoplehood is complicated. It extends beyond what a law can define, what geographic boundaries can mark, or what DNA can identify. And yet there are those that wish to use these facets to limit who is Jewish, in Israel and around the world. It was not lost on me that as a representative of the Reform movement on the trip, we need to be the ones to lead the charge in an expansive and dynamic approach to Jewish peoplehood. If the Law of Return serves as the litmus test for Judaism, we will undoubtedly regress as a people, and moreover miss the opportunity to celebrate a diverse, relevant, and inclusive approach to Judaism.

Many of us know from our tradition that Abraham’s tent was open on four sides, a symbol of inclusiveness. It’s the midrash that teaches us not only must the tent be open to all, but that we must run towards the stranger. It’s the running towards the stranger that we often are intimated by and use the tent to seek safety in structure. This unique trip to Ethiopia was a clear reminder that without expanding our comfortable definition of Judaism, and who is a Jew, we will too often mistake our Jewish family for the stranger in our midst.

I look forward to many future trips to Israel to see how the 180 members of the Ethiopian community we met and traveled with, and the many more to come, are shaping the future of every facet of Israeli society and the Jewish world, and deeply appreciate the work that the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partners are doing to support this important effort.

About the Author
Andrew Keene is a member of the Management Committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Deputy Chair of the Slichut Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Andrew lives in Washington DC where he works in civic tech for the healthcare system. He holds a business degree with a focus on entrepreneurship from Drexel University.
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