Masresha Dessie and his family were finally approved for immigration after having spent six years in camps in Ethiopia designated for Jews who wish to move to Israel.
Or so they were told.
“In 2004, all of our family members were invited to make aliyah [immigrate to Israel]. We had vaccinations and carried out all the needed procedures, but 10 hours before the flight, we were told that we didn’t have approval from Jerusalem. They told us to wait a week,” he told The Media Line.
That week turned into another 15 years’ wait. Dessie, today a young physician, immigrated on March 27, 2019, together with his mother, brother and sister, some 22 years after first entering the camps.
The Genesis 123 Foundation, an organization that seeks to build bridges between Jews and Christians, is launching the latest interfaith initiative on Wednesday to help Ethiopian Jews like Dessie immigrate to Israel and assist them once they arrive.
“Aliyah in general is a realization of prophecy, that Jews were going to be dispersed but eventually come home,” Genesis 123 Foundation’s president, Jonathan Feldstein, told The Media Line. “The fact that they’re black Jews … makes it exotic and a different touch point through which people can connect, particularly black Christians.”
While the Genesis 123 initiative is new, Christians and Jews have been working for years to bring Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.
One such Christian-Jewish partnership bore fruit on Friday, as 302 Ethiopian Jews sponsored by the Jewish Agency and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, despite the near-total closure of Israel’s main international entry point in an effort to keep out COVID-19 variants.
David Parsons, president and senior spokesman of ICEJ, explained why it was important for his organization to assist in the process.
“There is the whole humanitarian aspect of being reunited with their families here in Israel,” he told The Media Line. “We think these people have proven their desire to not only be here with their families but to be a part of Israel and a part of the Jewish people.”
There are approximately 14,000 Jews left in Ethiopia, of whom about 57% are the descendants of Jews who were converted, often forcibly, known as Falash Mura. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not consider the latter group Jewish but most are considered eligible for aliyah by the Israeli government. Still, the government has generally made it challenging for them to immigrate.
Many have been waiting in camps in rural Gondar Province or in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, some for over 20 years, for the Israeli government to approve their arrival.
The majority of Ethiopian Israelis are members of the Beta Israel community, who are considered to be Jews under most Orthodox interpretations. Many came to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s in Operations Moses and Solomon.
Delie Hailu, who immigrated to Israel in 2011 with his wife after waiting 12 years in Gondar camp, left behind his mother, two sisters and three brothers. While Hailu’s late father was Beta Israel, his mother is not and as such, they could not come to Israel.
He has tried everything he can to bring them to Israel, without success; like many Ethiopian Israelis, he is upset by what he says is the government’s ambivalence, at best, toward allowing the rest of the community to come on aliyah.
“I have inquired so many times about bringing my family over, but they don’t care,” Hailu told The Media Line. “They think we are liars. There are people in Addis and Gondar that they don’t consider Beta Israel, but they are.”
Life in Israel also presents challenges for Hailu, who helps his family in the camps by sending money he earns as a temporary worker.
“I have married and have two daughters but I don’t keep all the money. I send some to my family, to Ethiopia,” he said. “There is starvation there and a shortage of medicines. Large families are crammed into 3 meter by 3 meter ‘houses.’”
In October 2020, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tweeted that he had told Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about an initiative to bring 2,000 Ethiopian Jews on aliyah, the brainchild of Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian Israeli cabinet member.
In 2015, Netanyahu directed the government to bring the rest of the Ethiopian Jews in the camps to Israel by 2020, a directive that was not implemented.
Bruk Woruk, who came to Israel with most of his family 23 years ago, has an uncle still waiting in the camps in Addis, who came to visit the Jewish state a few years ago.
“He met with the prime minister, who promised … that he would bring him to the country, but it hasn’t happened yet,” Woruk told The Media Line through a translator.
His uncle Beyaa Tessa and his wife had two children, one of whom recently died from an infection, aged 8 days. Both Tessa and his wife have relatives in Israel.
The government selects who comes to Israel based on criteria such as having family members already in the country, and provides assistance after arrival, usually for around two years.
The Jewish Agency is the primary organization that arranges the flights once Ethiopian Israelis are approved for aliyah and delivers state-funded assistance once they arrive.
Organizations like ICEJ assist the Jewish Agency with its efforts.
“We work with the Israeli social workers on programs that have a little more long-term projection to keep many from falling through the tracks,” Parsons told The Media Line. “We have helped with a lot of absorption projects over the years, including scholarships for students. We’ve helped with a trauma center that helps these immigrants all the way back to the 1980s. … We’ve been giving computers to a lot of Ethiopian students in grade school who need to learn remotely.”
Feldstein said schooling is where Ethiopian Israeli immigrants require the most assistance.
“If you ask me, the greatest needs are in education from elementary through university,” he said. “That’s a critical stage to give them the tools to be successful, to be productive members of society.”
It is also vital to help Ethiopian Jews in the camps, where they live in destitution, he said.
“There is sadly a decent amount of malnutrition. Therefore a lot of programs in Ethiopia include free lunch so at least kids can come receive a hot and nutritious meal,” Feldstein said.
Dessie described life in the camps:
“It was quite challenging; sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat,” he told The Media Line, having spent three years in Gondar and 19 years in the Addis camps. “Even at the starting point, we were not accepted into governmental schools in Ethiopia, because we were supposed to be Israelis.”
The doctor faced many trials in getting to Israel.
After first being told he would be allowed to immigrate with his family in 2004, he was again approached 15 years later about aliyah. However, in the interlude, he had married and had a child.
“When I explained that I have new family members, they said that ‘we don’t recognize [eligibility] like this.’ They said I could either immigrate to Israel or go my own way,” he said.
“My mother was separated from her parents for more than 16 years. If I didn’t make aliyah, none of the family would make aliyah and my mother would suffer,” Dessie added.
He was forced to leave his wife, Beza, and his 3-year-old daughter Yan behind.
Dessie blames bias against Ethiopians for the separation and his 22-year wait.
“For my [ulpan] course, I went to Beit Canada in Ashdod and … in the class we were talking about issues related to the aliyah process. The people from other countries could fly to Israel whenever they wanted and they could apply without waiting,” Dessie said. “We don’t have these rights in Ethiopia.
“We had our own houses, our own land where we were born; we had had a whole life,” he added. “We left this in order to make aliyah, in order to be with our brothers in Israel.
“There are people whom I lived and studied with and who waited like us for over 20 years, and they’re still waiting,” Dessie said.
Gene Rubel, who has been involved in Ethiopian aliyah for years and ran an organization that was performing medical screening of Jews in Gondar before they came to Israel, agrees that racism is to blame for the delay in bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“For some reason, when we have the tremendous need to get new citizens from France or England or Scandinavia or America, they’re great, but when we want to Jews from Ethiopia somehow they’re not so desirable,” he told The Media Line. “From my perspective, it’s racism at its worst and classism, and it’s terrible.
“The argument is that it costs too much money. Well, it didn’t cost too much money when new citizens were coming from Tunisia and Morocco in 1948,” Rubel said. “Israel has plenty of money and it’s a national scandal that this is happening.”
Dessie is now awaiting the results of his medical licensing exam, after which he plans to start on his specialization in cardiac surgery at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
“We suffered a lot from this. We don’t have any medical treatments there [in the camps]. I wanted to be a medical doctor to help my community,” he said.