Gezahegen Derebe and Demoz Deboch, Ethiopian Jews in their 20s, came to Washington, D.C., earlier this month hoping to press the Israeli government into action.
They are among 9,000 Ethiopian Jews known as Falash Mura who are caught in what the Israeli government says is a budget crunch that is preventing them from making aliyah.
“The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting,” Derebe told a gathering at a downtown law office. “I don’t believe it is because of the budget.”
The American Jewish Committee sponsored the event. But the initiator of the Ethiopians’ visit to Washington was David Elcott, a professor of practice in public service and leadership at New York University. Two years ago, Elcott went to Africa to see what he thought was the last aliyah of Ethiopian Jews.
Elcott thought Israel was going to accept all those who had qualified to join their relatives. But he noticed that many were left behind at one of the Jewish Agency centers in Gondar province, including Deboch and Derebe. He said he figured they needed an advocate to draw attention to their needs with the influential American Jewish community. Since then, Elcott has been raising funds and started a petition to pressure the Israeli government to “do what needs to be done.”
“We are mystified at why the Israeli government would want to undermine a righteous and appropriate policy of kibbutz galuyot [the ingathering of the exiles in Israel],” the petition states. “We are committed to helping ensure that the State of Israel welcomes Jews of all colors as it fulfills the prophetic call.”
The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting. I don’t believe it is because of the budget. — Gezahegen Derebe, member of Falash Mura community
Derebe and Deboch are members of Falash Mura community, descended from a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted under pressure to Christianity in the 19th century. In the past, the group secretly practiced Judaism but was not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a political compromise a decade ago.
Israel’s Interior Ministry last year established a committee to look into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families. Critics say the committee has not accepted or rejected a single case, National Public Radio reported.
An Israeli official who wished to be quoted anonymously said “there is a principal decision to bring 1,300 of the 9,000 that are waiting. This still has to be approved by the cabinet, which is expected to approve it soon.”
Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer said his organization is awaiting the Israeli government’s decision. “Once such a decision is reached, we will implement it to the best of our ability,” he told the Times of Israel. The Jewish Agency operates a facility in Gondar to prepare Falah Mura for aliyah.
Derebe has his sights on joining his sister, who is married and lives in Israel; Deboch also hopes to make aliyah.
Most Ethiopians recognized as Jews by Israel were brought there in 1984 and 1991 airlifts, and the country’s Ethiopian community has grown to around 135,000. In 2015, the Israeli government approved entry of what it called the last group Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration to Israel. The move came two years after the arrival of 450 Ethiopian Jews then deemed to be the last such group. Each final wave of immigrants has brought out more Ethiopians who say they are Jewish or claim Jewish ancestry.
After listening to Derebe and Deboch, attorney David Farber said the immigration issues for Ethiopians hoping to make aliyah is “a problem that most American Jewish communities think is behind them. The truth is that more need to get into the country, and these folks are waiting in limbo.”
Added Elcott: “Whether it was a smart decision for Israel to let in these people from the villages, it’s sort of, if you broke it, you own it. It’s done. So it is in Israel’s interest, and the Jewish people’s interest, to finally make a separation and say these 9,000 need to come in.”
JTA contributed to this report.