Ethiopian Jews threaten mass hunger strike over Israel move

In an emotional gathering, representatives for thousands of Ethiopian Jews announced Wednesday they will stage a mass hunger strike if Israel eliminates funding to allow them to join their families in that country.

Hundreds met at a synagogue in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to express concern that Israel’s proposed budget removes the funding to help them immigrate to reunite with relatives. Many held photos of their loved ones.

Most of the nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in the East African nation are said to have family members already in Israel. Some told The Associated Press they have been separated for well over a decade.

In 1991 with Ethiopia deep in civil war, Israel carried out the dramatic Operation Solomon, successfully airlifting out some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in less than two days. Israel’s government in 2015 pledged to bring in the remaining Ethiopian Jews, with 1,300 Ethiopians brought in last year, but the effort is now on hold.

“All of us here in Ethiopia are in a foreign land and suffering from acute poverty and hunger,” said Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa. “We have had enough here. What have we done wrong to suffer this much?” he added, bursting into tears and prompting others to cry out.

He said Addis Ababa’s community of Ethiopian Jews, which numbers around 800 households, will hold a hunger strike if the Israeli government doesn’t hear their plea.

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Avraham Neguise, a lawmaker who chairs the Israeli parliament’s Absorption and Diaspora Committee, said the budget will be voted on in the coming weeks. He accused the government of discrimination, saying it makes it easier for other diaspora communities to immigrate.

“You cannot find any other communities where the parent is here and children are there and children are here and parents are there and are forced to be separated,” he said. “It is only the Ethiopian Jewish community, not the Americans, not the Russians, not Europeans. If this isn’t discrimination, what do you call it?”

Of the Ethiopian Jews remaining in Ethiopia, 783 are separated from their children and over 2,000 have parents or siblings in Israel, he said.

While Israeli law allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate, the trouble here centers on the community’s ancestors, said Alisa Bodner, a spokeswoman for the group Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. The ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity about a century ago, while their descendants have returned to a “fully Jewish lifestyle,” she told the AP.

Wednesday’s gathering was described as a solidarity event. Ethiopians currently are prohibited from holding protests under the country’s latest state of emergency, imposed this month after the most severe anti-government demonstrations in a quarter-century.

Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment on the issue of the Ethiopian Jews. Most of the community lives in the northern Amhara region, one of the areas that has experienced the sometimes deadly anti-government protests that began in November 2015 with demands for greater freedoms.

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The origin of the Ethiopian Jews is unclear but a popular legend says they descended from the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian Jews are often referred to in Ethiopia as “Falashas,” a derogatory word which translates into “strangers” or “migrants.”

Chekol Alemayehu, who said he has been waiting desperately to go to Israel and meet his relatives, said he completed all the immigration papers but was turned back at the airport more than a decade ago. “I’ve no idea why. My daughter died in Israel a few months ago. And I’ve been suffering since,” he said.

In a letter addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa said they want to immediately and without any preconditions go to Israel and join family members.

“We will never lose hope in going to Israel because we are winner people,” the letter says. “Dear Mr. Prime Minister, we want you to make our wish a reality. We ask you this in the name of Our God, Israel’s God.”

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment.

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Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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