LOD, Israel (AP) — Nearly 100 Ethiopian Jews landed in Israel on Monday in the first wave of new immigration since the government said last year that it would let some of the 8,000 remaining community members join relatives in Israel.
Local Ethiopian community members welcomed the newcomers after years of delays. Israel recognizes the community’s Jewish roots but does not consider them fully Jewish, so they require special approval to immigrate that has not always been forthcoming.
Atersau Baiye, 61, said he had been waiting for over 12 years to come to Israel and be reunited with his daughter, who lives in Tel Aviv.
“I am very happy to be here and excited to see my daughter, but it’s a mixed feeling,” he said. Baiye said that because he immigrated with his wife and six kids, he was forced to leave two adult children behind in Ethiopia who were not immediately eligible to immigrate. “I don’t know if we will see them again.”
Alisa Bodner, spokeswoman for an Ethiopian-Jewish activist group, said she was “far from satisfied” by the slow trickle of Ethiopian immigration, long stalled despite government promises to bring all remaining members of the community to Israel.
“This is a continuation of the discriminatory practices against Ethiopian-Israelis emanating from this current government,” she said.
The activists renewed their calls for Israel to make good on its 2015 promise to bring all remaining members of the Jewish Ethiopian community to Israel. The government never approved a budget for the move, and the slow trickle of immigration ground to a halt over a year ago. Last fall, the government announced it would absorb 1,000 of the remaining 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia, frustrating community members.
The bulk of the Ethiopian Jewish community was airlifted to Israel in major clandestine operations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although many of the newcomers are practicing Jews, Israel doesn’t consider them Jewish because their Jewish ancestors underwent forced conversion to Christianity over a century ago.
Ethiopian Jews who have made it to Israel complain of racism, lack of opportunity and endemic poverty. Last week, thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis marched through major roadways in Tel Aviv to protest police brutality and discrimination.
Despite the challenges, Baiye said he is ready to start his new life. “I’m going to work hard, earn a living, and live like everyone else.”