Who are the Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel?

Approximately 8,000 Ethiopians are stuck in the war-torn country and awaiting decisions on their eligibility to make aliyah. Should Israel bring them in?
New immigrants arrive in Israel from Ethiopia on December 3, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: As we wrote this week’s article, our hearts have been with the family of Eli Kay, who was killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem on Sunday. Kay was a recent immigrant to Israel from South Africa who was employed as a tour guide at the Western Wall. He was known for his commitment to Israel and the Jewish people as a paratrooper, yeshiva student and Israeli citizen. May his memory be a blessing.

We’re curious…

Earlier this month, the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency as rebel forces advanced toward the capital and fighting intensified in the civil war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions since it broke out one year ago.

According to The New York Times, amidst this crisis, at least 8,000 Ethiopians are stuck in the war-torn country and awaiting decisions on their eligibility to make aliyah.

Who exactly are these Ethiopians waiting to make aliyah? Known as Falash Mura, they are mainly the descendants of Jews who converted, under duress, to Christianity at the end of the 19th century.

(Unlike the immigrants who arrived in Israel during Operations Moses and Solomon, they are not members of Beta Israel, the original Jewish community of Ethiopia. You can read more about the Beta Israel below.)

Israelis are divided over the question of this group’s Jewish status and whether they should be allowed to make aliyah. On the one hand, they come from families who converted to Christianity, and the extent to which they are still connected with Judaism is unclear. On the other hand, they are of Jewish descent, and in many cases, they are the relatives of Ethiopian Israelis.

So, how is the Israeli government responding to this challenge? Earlier this month, Israel’s Aliyah Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked agreed to expedite the immigration of 5,000 Ethiopians with first-degree relatives in Israel to the Jewish state.

But it remains unclear when that will happen, and the Ethiopian-Israeli community has been pressing the government to act. Last week, hundreds of members of the community, including Tamano-Shata, gathered outside the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem to demand that Israel airlift their relatives out of Ethiopia.

As the situation continues to unfold in Ethiopia and Israel, we wanted to unpack the conversation in Israel and history leading up to this moment. What is the history of bringing the Ethiopian community to Israel? What do Israelis think about the idea of another large-scale aliyah operation for the community members who remain?

To help us understand this story, we reached out to Roni Akale, director-general of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), Grace Rodnitzki, director of international relations at ENP, and Rahamim Elazar, host of a show on Kol Yisrael, Israel’s national radio station, and you can read their perspectives below.

Operations Moses and Solomon

Quickly, let’s start from the beginning: who is the Ethiopian Jewish community and how did they arrive in Israel? 

Known in Hebrew as the “Beta Israel” (or “community of Israel”), the Jews of Ethiopia lived in complete isolation from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 2,000 years.

Like other Jewish communities around the world, Ethiopian Jews prayed for almost 2,000 years to return to the Land of Israel. Starting in the 1980s, that dream became a reality for thousands of Ethiopian Jews through Operations Moses and Solomon. 

If you don’t know the stories of these incredible operations, you can read about them in this article, but the very short version is that in 1984, during Operation Moses, Israel secretly airlifted 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel in just seven weeks.

Then in 1991, Operation Solomon brought more than 14,000 Beta Israel to Israel in under 36 hours. Through these two operations, Israel’s Ethiopian population went from a few hundred in 1983 to over 20,000 in 1991.

Today, about 125,000 Ethiopian Jews live in the Jewish state. In October 2020, the Israeli government approved the aliyah of 2,000 members of the Falash Mura community, and the last of this group of immigrants arrived in Israel earlier this year.

Diversity of perspectives from Israelis

So, what do Israelis think about this issue and if the government should bring the Ethiopians to the Jewish state? We asked that question to Roni Akale of the Ethiopian National Project. Akale immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1983 and was part of the first wave of immigrants who made the dangerous trek from Ethiopia to Sudan and then to the Jewish state.

Akale responded that the government must bring the remaining community members as soon as possible. “There are Ethiopian Jews who are waiting to come to Israel,” he said. “These people must be here [in Israel] with their families and communities. They are Jews, they are waiting as Jews, and they want to be here.”

At the same time, Akale acknowledged the challenges of doing this during a civil war, when so many Ethiopians want to leave the country. The government “must be careful,” Akale said. “They can’t [falsely] say they are a Jew and come to Israel.”

Rahamim Elazar, a journalist and activist in the Ethiopian-Israeli community who immigrated to Israel in 1972, agreed that the government should bring the group to Israel. 

“You can see this issue in two ways,” Elazar told us. “One is to bring those who have Jewish roots to Israel if they prove they have Jewish roots. The second is to bring them for humanitarian reasons. I personally support bringing them.”

Elazar underscored that some of the Ethiopians have been waiting to immigrate to Israel for as many as 20 years and have been “living under the illusion” that they will one day end up in Israel. He said that the Israeli government should make a decision about whether they are eligible to make aliyah as soon as possible and prevent them from waiting longer.

Elazar also said that there are legitimate questions about the community’s Jewish status. He said that some in the community claim they are Jewish and feel connected with Judaism, but practice Christianity and come from families who separated from the Beta Israel community.

Meanwhile, Ori Frednick, head of Jews of Ethiopia, took a more strident tone and called on the government to launch a mission on the scale of Operations Moses and Solomon, telling Army Radio, “We are receiving worrying reports from the sons and daughters of the Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar. A lightning rescue operation is needed before a disaster happens.” 

“Prime Minister Bennett can make history and follow the paths of [Menachem] Begin and [Yitzhak] Shamir with an effective aliyah operation, or be remembered as the one who did not heed the warnings and did not prevent the worst of all,” Frednick added.

How about Israeli government leaders? How did they respond? Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s aliyah minister who has championed the cause of the community remaining in Ethiopia, said at the recent protests, “I will not give up until the State of Israel corrects this injustice. I took on this task, which was not an election promise from a political place, and I intend to see it realized by this government.”

Interestingly, many other government leaders have kept silent on the issue. Haaretz reported that Defense Minister Benny Gantz “is believed to be against any immediate action, while the Labor Party leader, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, hasn’t expressed an opinion on the matter. No other party leader has weighed in.”

According to The Jerusalem Post, “a classified document compiled by the National Security Council claimed that it is not clear to what extent the 8,000 remaining [community members] are indeed Jewish and to what extent they are actually in danger. The document added that bringing them to Israel without a proper investigation could be a demographic mistake and that a rescue operation may create tensions with Ethiopian authorities.”

However, Israeli President Isaac Herzog disagreed with this assessment and called on the government to bring those waiting to make aliyah to Israel quickly. Similarly, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai of the Labor party told The New York Times, “My position is to bring them, as soon and as many as possible, and then say this operation of 40 or 50 years is over.”

However, not everyone supports the continuation of Ethiopian immigration to Israel. “There’s no end to it,” Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, told The New York Times. “After this 10,000 there’ll be another 10,000 with first degree relatives, and then more relatives of relatives.”

In one of his recent columns, Yemini characterized the continuing aliyah of the Falash Mura community as “immigration fraud.” He cited findings from the National Security Council report that the Ethiopians seeking aliyah are not Jewish according to the rules of the Law of Return.

Yemini further claimed that members of the Falash Mura community identify with Messianic Judaism, a religious movement that mixes elements of Evangelical Christianity and Judaism.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Sharon Shalom, chair for research of Ethiopian Jewry at the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College, argued that “all immigration from Ethiopia should be based on whether or not the individuals in question are of Jewish descent.”

Shalom told The Jerusalem Post that efforts to determine their Jewish lineage should be led by the community’s spiritual leaders, working together with members of the Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency.

Introducing Exodus 91

We are excited to share about our upcoming film from our parent company, OpenDor Media, “Exodus 91” about Operation Solomon. Using documentary footage and reenactments, this feature-length film follows the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Asher Naim, as he navigates the treacherous world of bureaucracy and politics in a region racked by civil war.

Part historical drama, part documentary, the film blurs the lines between past and present to look beyond the euphoric salvation of Ethiopian Jewry. It portrays the transformation of an individual whose calm diplomatic demeanor fades as he confronts endless obstacles while orchestrating the perilous rescue mission. 

On a more universal level, the film explores challenging questions surrounding cultural identity, the politics of immigration, and the hardships that remain for these immigrants, and the others that followed, to this day.

Plus, Exodus 91 highlights a fundamental principle of Israel’s existence: leave no Jew behind. While many countries turn immigrants away, Israel does the opposite, rescuing those in danger and offering a home to those seeking a better life. If you want to support this project and help us finish this timely film, you can donate here.