The government of Israel announced earlier this month that it will bring 8,000 more Ethiopian black Jews, known commonly as Falashas, from Ethiopia to Israel. Those awaiting the airlift are currently living in the Ethiopian city of Gondar. There, they receive aid services from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and health services from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. According to Israel, the Ethiopians will be brought at the rate of about 200 per month over four years.??
“I think its a symbolic and important recognition that the Falash Mura is also Jewish. It also solves a rather large humanitarian problem,” notes John Ishiyama, Ph.D, professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas. “Also, Israel has been quite resistant to recognizing the Falash Mura. The idea of unlimited immigration from Ethiopia has historically been problematic for the Israeli leadership. It is possible, from their point of view, if they relax immigration procedures. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will claim Jewish heritage and be eligible to emigrate to Israel. The fact that Israel has opened the door to the Falash Mura is an important precedent.”??
Such airlifts initially began in 1991 when Israel airlifted 15,000 Jews from Ethiopia in what was called Operation Solomon. The emergency rescue operation took 36 hours and happened just as rebel forces were taking over. “The Falash Mura have moved into camps around Gondar (a northern city) and Addis Ababa over the last decade hoping to have an opportunity to emigrate to Israel. These camps are quite squalid and represent a humanitarian problem,” says Ishiyama. “I think the Ethiopian government is probably happy that Israel will now relieve them of this problem.” Prior to Operation Solomon, there was Operation Moses when, in 1984, Israel airlifted Falashas from Sudan during a famine.??
But all has not been ideal for the Falashas – whose numbers now top 120,000 – since arriving in Israel. Many claim discrimination against them in Israel. “The Falash Mura were Beta Israel (the preferred name for the community) who had converted to Christianity (or perhaps forced to)– but are now “returning” to Judaism,” explains Ishiyama. “The Beta Israel leadership in Israel has been pressing for acceptance of them as Jews, which is controversial in Israel.”
??In Israel, the Beta Israel people have suffered economically as well, as there is a high unemployment rate for the community. They have protested many times over the years about their treatment. “They still face the lack of economic opportunities and have been somewhat at the margins of Israeli society. In part, unlike immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, who were often skilled workers or professionals, Beta Israel immigrants were poor subsistence farmers, who have found fewer opportunities in Israel society and have had a much harder time integrating,” Ishiyama points out. But he says, things are improving. “It has been quite difficult for acceptance. For many years the Beta Israel community was concentrated in certain cities and lived apart from mainstream Israeli society. However, Beta Israel members have found upward mobility opportunities particularly in the military,” he says. “Generally, I think there is a principle motivating the airlifts: to bring Jews back to the Jewish homeland. The situation of most communities like the Falash Mura is not very good in Ethiopia and, so, this is a humanitarian act. “?