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Ethiopia Jews protest Israeli government’s emigration delays

November 19, 2018
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Members of Ethiopia's Jewish community gather below a banner reading "Welcome" in Amharic, English and Hebrew, to protest the Israeli government's decision not to allow all of them to emigrate to Israel, leaving their families divided between the two countries, at the synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. Representatives of the 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia urged the Ethiopian Jews living in Israel to think carefully before voting for Israel's ruling party, the Likud, over the delays in repatriation to Israel. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Hundreds of Ethiopian Jews gathered in the capital, Addis Ababa, to protest the Israeli government’s decision not to allow all of them to emigrate to Israel, leaving their families divided between the two countries.

Representatives of the 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia urged the Ethiopian Jews living in Israel to think carefully before voting for Israel’s ruling party, the Likud, over the delays in repatriation to Israel.

The Ethiopian Jews claim they are being blocked from emigrating to Israel, despite a 2015 pledge to allow them to do so by the Israeli government.

“I urge Ethiopian Jews to think twice before voting for the Likud party because the party’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not keeping his words to help us emigrate to Israel,” Neggousa Zemene Alemu, head coordinator of the Ethiopian Jews in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar, told The Associated Press Monday, as hundreds gathered at a synagogue in Addis Ababa on Monday.

“I don’t believe the Israeli government has a financial problem to immigrate the remaining Ethiopian Jews back to Israel,” he said. “I rather think it is a political move or racism.”

The Israeli government decided on October 7 that just 1,000 Ethiopian Jews would be permitted to move to Israel, which would leave many families divided, according to leaders of Ethiopia’s Jewish community. They said Ethiopian Jews are starving, ostracized and deprived of basic needs in Africa while the government in Israel is “dragging its feet to come to our rescue.”

Eyayu Abuhay, a community organizer, said 50 Ethiopian Jews have died since 2015 while waiting to join their family members in Israel. “We want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come to our rescue before we all die here,” he said.

In February, Ethiopian Jews held a similar protest in Addis Ababa and warned they will stage a mass hunger strike if Israel eliminates funding to help them join their families in Israel. Since then, Israeli officials have visited Ethiopia, but organizers said nothing has changed since then.

Most of the more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in the East African nation are practicing Jews and believed to have family members that already reside in Israel. Some told AP they have been separated for more than a decade.

But Israel doesn’t consider them Jewish under strict religious law, meaning their immigration requires special approval. They are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity around a century ago, and the Israeli government views bringing them to Israel as family reunification rather than “aliya,” or Jewish immigration. The families allege discrimination.

In 1991, with Ethiopia in civil war, Israel carried out the dramatic Operation Solomon which airlifted some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in less than two days. Now about 145,000 Ethiopian Jews are estimated to be living in Israel.

“Why are we not allowed to immigrate to Israel? Is it because we are black or uneducated?” asked Melese Sidisto, a coordinator for Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa, who then burst into tears. “We are being cheated like a child. This is not right.”

In a letter addressed to Netanyahu, the Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa said they want to go to Israel immediately and without any preconditions to join their family members.

“Our family members are dying here while we are awaiting your promise to be implemented,” the letter reads. “Not implementing the promise amounts of playing with Israeli citizens lives. This is not expected from a democratic state like Israel.”

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