In Ethiopia, putting a face to the ones left behind – The Times of Israel

GONDAR, Ethiopia — When the congregation at the HaTikvah Synagogue in this northern Ethiopian town rises to sing Israel’s national anthem at the end of every service, the mournful melody is transformed into a rousing chant, a determined shout to the heavens — and to the doors of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset — that their prayers to immigrate to the land of Zion are heard.

In 2013, the Jewish Agency announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah, with a celebratory last flight and ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky said they had “closed the circle” on Ethiopian aliyah after 3,000 years.

While Sharansky celebrated at the airport, left behind in Gondar — as well as in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa — were approximately 9,000 Ethiopian Jews who did not qualify for aliyah according to standards from the Ministry of the Interior, but still deeply identify as Jewish.

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In November, the government approved the immigration of 9,000 Jews from Ethiopia. The decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget. Two Likud MKs, Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, refused to vote with the coalition until the government funded the decision to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, which they finally did in April. However, a Knesset shake-up in late May meant that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a larger majority in the coalition, and Neguise and Amsalem’s tactics will not work again.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speaking to the press at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016, at the start of a trip to Africa. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel))

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speaking to the press at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016, at the start of a trip to Africa. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel))

The Ethiopian immigration was supposed to begin in June. But as Netanyahu flew to Africa on a four-day tour this week, his office refused to comment on reasons why the process has not started.

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Netanyahu is touring Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and he will arrive in Ethiopia on Thursday. There, Netanyahu will meet with politicians and businessmen, and take a tour of the national museum, but his official schedule does not include any meetings with the Jewish community.

The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as “Falashmura,” a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. But most Jews in Ethiopia today reject this term. They are willing to go through the conversion process when they arrive in Israel, as some are not matrilineal Jewish, but they bristle at the suggestion that they are not ethnically Jewish.