A Chance in Israel: Jewish Ethiopian Immigrants Searching for a Better Life

Jewish Ethiopian immigrants flee humanitarian crisis, as over 2,000 people are set to arrive in Israel from the war-torn country by the end of January.

In a bid to flee war, poverty, and Covid-19, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants from the Falash Mura Jewish community, have been given the chance to move to Israel. Many are escaping the internal conflict that threatens stability in Ethiopia’s northern region, Tigray. For the Falash Mura, who have been also been segregated and face religious discrimination, the move to Israel represents a chance of some safety.

Shelling and warfare are overwhelming the region, as the Tigray Regional Government fight forces led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The push for political reform has plummeted the region into a turbulent civil war.

Many are fleeing the internal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern region. [Image: haaretz.com]

December saw just over 500 people land at Ben Gurion airport, just outside Tel Aviv. As part of Operation Tzur Israel, thousands of people are being granted the right to live in Israel on a case by case basis.

Severe Danger of Covid-19

Israel’s recently appointed Absorption and Immigration Minister, Pnina Tamano-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia, has been at the forefront of pushing the operation. This comes after reports that up to 14,000 Ethiopians waiting to emigrate to Israel are in severe danger from Covid-19 and the recent warfare.

Many families who live here in pain and for those who have been waiting for many years to immigrate to Israel, now living in hunger, this is a lifeline.

Israeli Immigration Minister, Pnina Tamano-Shato

The virus is spreading quickly in Ethiopia, with more than 60,000 cases and 1,500 new confirmed cases each day. The minimal running water and lack of sanitary conditions in some camps are only worsening the spread of the virus.

In a post on Facebook, Tamano-Shato spoke of the emergency unfolding: “It is said, whoever saves one life saves an entire world. Many families who live here in pain and for those who have been waiting for many years to immigrate to Israel are now living in hunger, this is a lifeline.”

Some desperate families in Addis Ababa have been waiting an agonising 20 years for this. Thousands have been left stranded in Ethiopian camps as they wait for approval from the Israeli government. It is becoming ever more apparent that people are slipping through the gaps of the Israeli government’s immigration system. It seems desperate families waiting in Ethiopian camps are being easily ignored- although the Israeli government have previously blamed it on the lengthy process.

This prompted Tamano-Shato to bring the rest of the Falash Mura community by the end of 2021.

The Falash Mura Community

Those arriving in Israel are part of the Falash Mura population, they are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity in the late 1800s. Today they mainly practice Judaism and are of Jewish lineage.

Many Falash Mura people have strong family links to the Beta Israel community, a group of Ethiopian Jews who were brought to Israel in the 1980s.

Both communities have been fleeing Ethiopia, as they face racial hatred and persecution.

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Falash Mura are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.

The issue of whether they should be allowed to live in Israel has caused division for many years. As the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return. This leads to a lengthy process to get special permission from the Israeli government, a task which has resulted in many immigrants being abandoned in Ethiopia, despite the dangers.

A Desperate Wait

An estimated 9,000 Ethiopian immigrants fleeing humanitarian crisis have been waiting for the Israeli government’s approval for over 15 years. In Gondar, Ethiopia’s second city, thousands of people have been waiting for up to 20 years; the Ethiopian Jewish community feels many are being forgotten about as they struggle to survive in poverty.

Activists in Israel have taken to the streets to proclaim their anger over the number of community members who have been left to their own devices, 12,000 of whom are in direct danger from the recent outbreak of war in the northern Tigray region.

Muket Fenta is an activist who has been fighting for more than ten years to get his Aunt into Israel: “The government is celebrating a few hundred immigrants from Ethiopia, while thousands were supposed to be here and are still left behind, while their fate is in question.” Fenta’s Aunt is one of many Falash Mura who is waiting to be granted special permission, as she cannot move under Israeli Law of Return.

The conflict between Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front claimed its first victim from Gondar’s Jewish community on the 12th of November, Girmew Getehe. He had been waiting to immigrate since he was 12 years old and died aged 36.

Thousands wait desperately for permission from the Israeli government, in the meantime; war, famine, and religious threats only increase their vulnerability.

[Header Image: Jack Guez/ Getty Images]