Israeli Immigration Minister Urges Gov’t To Avoid Past Mistakes With Ethiopian Jewry
Newly arrived Jewish Ethiopians disembark a plane upon landing in Israel on a special flight from Ethiopia on Dec. 3, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Israeli Immigration Minister Urges Gov’t To Avoid Past Mistakes With Ethiopian Jewry

Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata: ‘The vision is to be Jewish with values’

At the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee meeting on December 7, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata urged the committee to not repeat the same mistakes that the Israeli government made in the past with regard to Ethiopian Israelis.

“To my sorrow, the State of Israel has not learned the lessons of the past four decades in everything to do with the Ethiopian community. … They have already come back to be Jews and a majority of their families live in Israel. … We, as the people of Israel, cannot leave our people, our brothers and our sisters abandoned and we must truly move our feet,” she said.

“We have to fix our ways and I mean we. We are the people of Israel and if we have to repeat and repeat this we will. … It must be said that time after time, over generations, the government of Israel makes a decision and does not follow through. There is the decision from 2015 to bring over 9,000 members of our community. They brought over 2,000, saying, ‘Here they are.’ The government has not fulfilled its decisions,” Tamano-Shata added.

“We need to keep the vision in front of us and the vision is to be Jewish with values, not to stand in front of crying families. Daily, I receive phone calls from mothers; it breaks my heart. If you don’t hear the heartbreaking stories, you can’t solve the problem. You can’t go and find the real solution,” she continued.

In a statement from her office, Tamano-Shata’s spokesperson said:

“These days, Immigration and Absorption Minister MK Pnina Tamano-Shata is drafting a comprehensive outline for those awaiting aliyah [immigration to Israel] in Ethiopia and the closing of the camps. The minister is highly acquainted with the pain the families endure and has been working since she [became a minister] to bring to the reunification of separated families. The issue concerning those awaiting aliyah in Ethiopia is a complex and painful national issue for the Ethiopian community in Israel. Many families arrived to Israel while their relatives stayed behind, waiting for many years to make aliyah.”

The meeting falls on the backdrop of a recent trip to Ethiopia by Tamano-Shata, Israel’s first Ethiopian-born government minister and first African-born female minister. On her return to Israel on December 3, Tamano-Shata brought with her 316 members of the Falash Mura community, who are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were converted under duress. Most live Jewishly now.

The group was part of what is known now as Operation Tzur Yisrael (Rock of Israel), a plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in October to bring 2,000 Falash Mura to the country. Some of those waiting have been living in terrible conditions for over 20 years.

Of the approximately 14,000 Jews left in Ethiopia, nearly 60% of are considered Falash Mura. The latter live in two camps – one in the capital, Addis Ababa, and the other in the Gondar province – in abject poverty.

Most in these holding facilities in Ethiopia have family members who are already in Israel.

Israel’s existing Ethiopian Jewish community primarily comprises members of Beta Israel, whose ancestors did not convert to Christianity but always lived as Jews. Most in this group was brought to the Jewish state in two operations – called Moses and Solomon – in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2003, the Israeli government has permitted Falash Mura members to immigrate as well.

While there is some disagreement in the Beta Israel community over whether to bring Falash Mura to Israel, many believe that it is long past due to bring those remaining home to Israel.

On this topic, mother, midwife and activist Terry Tessema-Cohen says her opinion has changed over time.

“Fifteen years ago, I felt no need to bring the people who are left there because they weren’t 100% Jewish. I was a kid who grew up in a village and kept Jewish traditions strictly. But my opinion changed because I read history books and the kingdom of Ethiopia … forced Jews to be Christians. … They have Beta Israel roots,” she told The Media Line.

Tessema-Cohen’s cousin, Baruch Tegegne, was an activist who pushed for Ethiopian Jews to be brought as citizens to the Jewish state. Her view was also shaped by the Russian immigration to Israel in the early 1990s.

“Falash Mura are four or five generations away from Beta Israel, but now I can see like in 1991, many of the Russians who came were only nominally Jewish. I said to myself, if they came to Israel, why not those who believe in Judaism and claim to belong?” she said.

Unlike the Russians, however, the Falash Mura are required to convert in order to immigrate to Israel.

Even Beta Israel members have had their Jewish identity is questioned by the state.

When Tessema-Cohen was 7 years old, she went to a camp in Sudan with other Ethiopian Jews while they waited for Israel to accept them. The state initially refused, Tessema-Cohen explained, citing concerns about their Jewishness, and only caved as a result of international pressure. She came to Israel in 1984, at the age of 9 ½.

“When we talk about Black Jews, the history is bad,” Tessema-Cohen said.

The activist is frustrated by what she describes as the political nature of these airlifts of Ethiopian Jews.

“Israel needs to bring all the people who are waiting there … not only when there is an election,” Tessema-Cohen says, accusing Netanyahu of bringing a few hundred now just to buy the community’s votes. “This is not right.”

“Regardless of elections, Israel needs to bring them, all of them. They deserve to come here,” she adds.

Shula Mola, an educator, board member and former chairperson of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, agrees.

“If the government were serious about the people who are left behind, it would know what to do: Connect with our leaders who know the exact conversion status of people. [These leaders] have the knowledge base but the government doesn’t want to use their knowledge,” she told The Media Line.

When Tessema-Cohen came to Israel in 1984, her struggles were not over.

“Our lives continued to be bad even when we were brought there,” she said.

Many Ethiopian Israelis were first settled in Israel’s periphery and other undesirable locations and did not have equal educational opportunities.

Mola says that Ethiopian Israelis are still struggling for equality with the rest of Israeli society.

“It’s about structure, it’s about perception of the white establishment that didn’t accept Ethiopians from the beginning,” she said.

“Our desire is to be normal. We want to go around as people who are locals because we are Israelis,” Mola added.

Tessema-Cohen agrees.

“My parents used to tell us: You can’t go to Israel if you are a thief, if you are a liar, if you don’t respect your mother. … If you have no mercy in your heart, you can’t be in the Holy Land. We came like that,” she said. “Every time they [non-Ethiopian Israelis] look at us, all they see is color,” she added.

The midwife and mother says that now, Israeli society is starting to better understand the plight of Ethiopian Israelis, especially with regard to police brutality.

“Whenever there is a demonstration in Jerusalem and the police hit them, now they understand my demonstration. Now we are working together,” Tessema-Cohen said.

“I believe changes will come, but it will take time. We have to be tough. We can’t give up – we have to continue to tell the history [of Ethiopian Israelis],” she added. “We can change the mind of people.”

Joshua Shuman contributed to this report.

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