Forty-three Ethiopian immigrants fulfilled their lifelong dreams when they landed in Ben-Gurion Airport on Feb. 25. Coming all the way from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, these Jews reunited with their relatives already living in Israel. They were finally home.
These nine Falash Mura families were escorted into Israel by Likud political party leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant and Communications Minister David Amsalem. The Prime Minister recently urged 400 Jewish Ethiopians to reunite with their families in Israel. After years of waiting for this opportunity, the Ethiopians eagerly made aliya.
While this story seems like a heartwarming tale, is it really as uplifting as it seems?
On the eve of the third Israeli election, Israelis accused Netanyahu of using his power to quickly win over the Ethiopian immigrants. After years of ignoring the Ethiopians’ terrible situations in their home country, only recently did the Prime Minister push for the admission of new Ethiopian immigrants. At the beginning of February, the cabinet approved bringing these 400 Falash Mura into the country.
Netanyahu demanded that the first of these immigrants arrive in Israel before the third election. The vaccination process had to be accelerated. The forty-three immigrants selected are only about 10 percent of the 400 immigrants approved for immigration, but the Prime Minister’s message is clear: he will continue to bring in more Ethiopians.
However, not all Israelis support Netanyahu’s change of heart. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit argued against the admission of these immigrants because this policy served as political campaigning by Likud rather than altruism by the state. Netanyahu’s chief political rival, Kachol Lavan chairman Benny Ganz, said that he was “appalled to see how Netanyahu is carrying out a cynical election campaign on the backs of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia and their families here, whom he has neglected for a decade.” Polling data supports the claim of Ganz, as most of the Ethiopian community voted against Netanyahu in the past election. Since the past two elections have been virtual ties between Netanyahu and Ganz’s parties, Netanyahu is pulling every string he can to stay in office.
In addition to the questionable motives of the policymakers, there are issues with the “Jewishness” of these forty-three Ethiopians. In 1984 and 1985, the Israeli government acted to address the dire plight of the Ethiopian Jewish community. The solution was Operation Moses: Israel airlifted approximately 8,000 Jews to Israel in seven weeks. Again, in 1991, Israel transported approximately 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in two days.
In both operations, the Jews were Beit Yisrael Jews, so once their Judaism was verified, they were accepted into the country. However, there are actually two groups of Ethiopian Jews. According to the former Sephardic Chief Rabbis, Shlomo Amar and Ovadia Yosef, the Beit Yisrael Jews are and have always been Jews. Their Ethiopian Jewish traditions trace back over 3,000 years. Once an Ethiopian is able to prove that he is a Beit Yisrael Jew, the Israeli government will accept him. The second group of Ethiopian Jews is the Falash Mura Jews. The ancestors of these Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. While some continued to practice their Judaism in hiding, other Falash Mura Ethiopians intermarried with their Christian neighbors. However, according to Jewish law, it is impossible to leave the religion permanently, even after a Christian conversion. The debate surrounding whether to accept the Falash Mura as Jews has been a constant issue for the past 40 years.
Since the Ethiopian immigrants who arrived on Feb. 25 were Falash Mura Jews, they were not immediately given citizenship. Only after officially converting to Judaism can these Jews be accepted as Israeli citizens through the Law of Return.
Partially because of their questionable “Jewishness” and partially because of the color of their skin, Ethiopian Jews in Israel face much discrimination. In 1996, blood banks refused Ethiopians’ blood donations because of the fear of HIV. In 2015, Israeli Ethiopians protested against the discrimination they were facing, especially in the army. Ethiopian Israeli students have reported in interviews that they do not feel accepted in Israeli society.
The transition for Ethiopian Jews from Africa to Israel has been difficult. The societal resistance they encounter is only made worse when politicians exploit their situation for political gain. While Netanyahu’s goal of bringing more Ethiopians to Israel is laudable, it is unfair to use them so blatantly for political gain. It is time the Ethiopian Jews are finally allowed to immigrate to Israel, and it is time Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses both their immigration to the country and their absorption and treatment once they have arrived. We can only hope this will happen now, regardless of any political party’s motives.