Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis protested outside the Knesset on Sunday demanding that their family members waiting to make aliyah be brought immediately to Israel, in light of the escalating civil war in Ethiopia. 

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Last Tuesday, following a discussion on the security situation in Ethiopia, Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Immigration and Absorption Pnina Tamano-Shata announced a decision expedite the immigration of 5,000 Ethiopian Jews, many of who are waiting in transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa. This decision, made with consultation by the National Security Council, would expedite the aliyah of all those with first-degree relatives in Israel in accordance with Resolution 716, which was adopted by the Israeli government in 2015.

The last year has seen a growing conflict between the Ethiopian government and rebel forces from the northern Tigray region, resulting in famine, thousands dead, and millions displaced. The rebels have made strides toward the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in recent weeks. 

Surafel Alamu’s sisters and Etti Gouldja’s uncles have been stuck in Gondar, waiting for years to make aliyah to Israel. Now, seeing them in Israel has turned from simply being a dream, to real concern for their lives.

Etti Gouldja's family, who are waiting to make aliyah, in the transit camp in Gondar, Ethiopia. (Photo: Private album)

“Obviously they are Jews,” Gouldja asserted, in response to recent allegations that those requesting entry to Israel may not actually be Jewish, but rather attempting to flee the civil war. 

“My grandmother waited in Gondar as a Jew and immigrated under the Law of Return in 2007. If the State of Israel thought she was not Jewish, they would not have allowed her to enter,” Gouldja continued.

Gouldja, who was born in a village near Gondar, immigrated to Israel in 2006 together with her parents and brother, with her grandmother following a year later. She left behind her grandfather and her mother’s five brothers, who have been waiting to make aliyah for 14 years. She has no explanation of why it has taken so long.

Etti Gouldja. (Photo: Private album)

“When immigrants from other countries come here, their Judaism isn’t questioned, their place is here,” she said. “But when it comes to Ethiopian Jews, they think that when it is convenient for them, they live as Christians and when they are comfortable, they want to immigrate to Israel.”

The situation in Ethiopia is rapidly deteriorating. Only recently, a few of Gouldja’s uncles and nephews were drafted to serve in the Ethiopian army. 

“They were forcibly taken and released recently, and at any moment could be recalled and perhaps more [of my uncles and nephews] will be taken to serve,” she said, with clear concern.

Alamu adds that he is unable to contact his sisters due to internet and electricity blackouts in the Gondar area.

“About a month ago, the war reached their area. My sister was worried that she would be forced to enlist in the army, because those over 18 are being drafted,” Alamu explained. “This government has a responsibility to the people of Ethiopia: either further entrench the fighting or unite us all as one Ethiopian family.”

Surafel Alamu (center), with his sisters Amelwurk (left) and Ismeritch (right). Photo taken in 2013 during Alamu's first visit to Ethiopia since making aliyah. (Photo: Private album)

Alamu claims that if Israel has declared the Ethiopian civil war a serious security situation, they should be prepared to undertake an emergency aliyah operation. 

“We are families and citizens of Israel who have contributed to Israeli society – the government needs to be decisive and unite our families. We are losing our relatives. This is not a political interest. In the end, it is racism,” Alamu said angrily. 

“32,000 people immigrate to Israel every year – how many of them are Ethiopians? These are families that have been separated because of decisions of the political echelon,” he continued. 

Gouldja added that she is fighting for the reunion of her 84-year-old grandmother with the rest of her children. 

“This is not a request, but a demand: the State of Israel must bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel who have been waiting for years to come; Jews who have been torn apart from their families,” she said. “My mother should not have to cry for her children for 14 years. If the State of Israel is a society where my grandmother is [considered] Jewish, then her children are also Jewish. This is their place too.”

Sigd worship at the Commissioner's Palace in Jerusalem. (Photo: Nir Pur and the Information Center)

The Ethiopian Jewish community marked the Sigd holiday in early November, with a traditional pilgrimage to Jerusalem and a day of fasting. The holiday, when celebrated in Ethiopia, was meant to strengthen the Jewish community against assimilation by emphasizing longing for the return to Zion and Jerusalem through a symbolic ascent to Mount Sinai and acceptance of the Torah. The main topics of prayer are the call for the return of Zion and public soul-searching, unlike the private soul-searching of Yom Kippur. 

A state-sponsored ceremony was held at the Commissioner’s Palace in Jerusalem, with prayers led by kessim (religious leaders of the community) and speeches from President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Minister Tamano-Shata. 

President Isaac Herzog shaking hands with the kessim (religious leaders in the Ethiopian Jewish community). (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom)

“Our national mission for the optimal absorption of Ethiopians in their country has not ended,” Herzog said “The longings of the past are largely the basis of this holy day, but it is important that we do not neglect the longings of the future for a moment. Thousands are still waiting to immigrate to Israel, and some are in threatening and worrying situations.”

“We, the generation that achieved the return to Zion, stand here and say, ‘here I am’, and it is a big asset for the country of Israel,” said Minister Tamano-Shata. “Dear parents, look at the beauty of the young people celebrating the holiday, you have something to be proud of. We stand here in the Holy Land thanks to your faith, and continue to carry the torch in the love of Jerusalem and God.”

The Minister stressed the commitment of the State of Israel to the safety and immigration of those waiting in the transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa. 

“Even these days, we pray that our relatives in Ethiopia, Immediately make aliyah,” she said.

Youth movement HaNoar HaOved v'Halomed added their voice in a letter to Minister Tamano-Shata sent last Tuesday.

Youth leaders in HaNoar HaOved v'HaLomed at an event marking Sigd at the Absorption Center in Beer Sheva. (Photo: Spokesperson HaNoar HaOved)

The letter reads: “For over 20 years, thousands of Jews in the transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa have been waiting to fulfill their dream of immigrating to Israel. Thousands who left their homes years ago to immigrate to Israel and were left in a temporary state of eternal waiting. The civil war is exacerbating the situation of families and individuals in the waiting camps, and with each passing day we are losing more and more of our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia!

“We in the movement consider the absorption of aliyah from Ethiopia an order of the hour and a supreme goal, and call on the State of Israel to allow it. We are waiting for them here. Our hearts, homes and the movement branches are open and waiting for them.”