After more than two decades, 9,300 Ethiopian Jews will finally be able to emigrate to Israel. Known as Falash Mura, they are descendants of Jews who were forced or persuaded to convert to Christianity long ago, but who have been living observant Jewish lives for years. The recent government decision to bring them to Israel means that thousands of people who have been separated from their families for more than 20 years will finally be reunited.
“This government decision was the result of persistence, determination, and intensive activity” said MK Dr. Avraham Neguise, chair of the Knesset Committee on Immigration and Absorption. “We were simply not willing to give up – and in the end, we succeeded.”
As founder and leader of the NGO South Wing to Zion, MK Neguise has been fighting for the remainder of Ethiopian Jews to be allowed to immigrate since Operation Solomon, the covert Israeli airlift that brought 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours in 1991.
“This is everyone’s success, not just mine,” says Neguise, remembering the many people who acted alongside him — including Former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, Rabbi Menachem Waldman, Prof. Irwin Kotler, Prof. Michael Corinaldi Rabbi Yafet Alamu, former NIF Director Avi Armoni, Shatil Associate Director Carlos Sztyglic, the JDC and many more. He gave special thanks to Rabbi Gordon Tucker of White Plains, NY, who donated funds to keep the synagogue — and therefore Jewish life for the refugees in Gondar — going while they waited to emigrate.
Neguise said that NIF and Shatil were the first organizations to support his efforts, with financial assistance from NIF and Shatil guidance in how to get organized, work with the Knesset and the media, fundraise, and more.
“From the beginning, when everyone else saw us as troublemakers, NIF and Shatil believed in our cause,” said Neguise. “NIF supported us financially all the way and in 1994 sent me on an educational tour of the U.S. where I managed to recruit supporters in the Jewish community. I really thank the leadership of NIF and Shatil.”
Neguise describes Attorney Mary Ann Stein, president of the Moriah Fund and former president of NIF, as the engine behind these efforts. In addition to financial support, Moriah funded a 1999 survey of remaining Ethiopian Jews at a time when the Israeli government worked from no official list. “This was an historic act,” said Neguise. “The government is now using this list in working to bring the remainder of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.”
Laws stipulating that Ethiopian Jews applying to immigrate must have a Jewish mother prevented earlier attempts to bring the last remnants of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. Three Jewish grandparents were not enough for Israel’s leadership, whereas with every other group, one Jewish grandparent suffices, said Neguise.
Neguise also commended the government for recently passing a budget of NIS530 million to bridge gaps among Ethiopian Israelis education, employment, culture, and security.