Forgotten in Ethiopia, Kwara Jews make aliyah
NEW YORK– Seventy-six Jews from the Kwara region of northern Ethiopia touched down this week at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
Their arrival Tuesday marked what many advocates hoped was “the beginning of the end” of the plight of an estimated 3,800 Ethiopian Jews who had been left behind when thousands of fellow Jews immigrated to Israel earlier this decade.
Once the Jews of Kwara have been relocated, many involved in the cause of Ethiopian Jewry expect the more controversial issue of the thousands of Falash Mura seeking entry to Israel will move up on the Jewish communal agenda. Falash Mura consider themselves to be Jewish but are not recognized as such by the state of Israel.
The Kwara Jews who arrived Tuesday, dressed in their traditional white robes, seemed bewildered and anxious as they deplaned only to find themselves in the glaring lights of camera crews.
Despite the international media attention, this exodus from Africa was meant to be a low-key affair in an effort to maintain the cooperation of the Ethiopian government, several observers noted.
The new immigrants came on a regularly scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flight, the first of an expected 40 such flights bringing the remaining Kwara Jews to Israel.
The number of immigrants expected on Tuesday’s flight was first put at 88. But, according to a Jewish Agency spokesman, two families were forced to remain behind because their children had contracted measles in Gondar.
Officials say they expect the immigration of the Kwara Jews to be completed by the end of the year.
The estimated 3,800 Jews from the Lower Kwara region — up from previous estimates of 3,500 — were left off official rosters of Ethiopian Jews approved for aliyah, or immigration to Israel, in the mass airlifts of Operation Solomon in 1991.
Several other efforts were made to bring Jews out of Ethiopia since then, but by all accounts, this group of Jews was “forgotten.”
Over the past year, hundreds of Kwara Jews — along with thousands of Falash Mura — had gathered at a compound near the Israeli consulate building in the northern regional capital of Gondar.
Conditions in the compound have consistently been described by humanitarian aid workers and Israeli officials as anywhere from “awful” to “inhuman.”
Moved by the Jews’ plight, advocates from the United States and Israel cried out for Israel to expedite their aliyah.
After months of unfulfilled promises, the outgoing Netanyahu government responded to their appeals this month by deciding to forgo the rigorous application process that typically has been applied in cases of Ethiopian Jews.
The Interior Ministry this week increased its staff in Gondar by four, bringing the number of personnel working together with local community members there to 12, including two senior Jewish Agency staff and a doctor.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein — whose Chicago-based foundation, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, provided $500,000 for the additional staff — was on hand for the 5:50 p.m. arrival in Israel, which brought the Kwara Jews into a waiting room already filled with immigrants from Brazil and Russia.
“A miracle,” Eckstein said, referring to the room that brought “Jews together from the four corners of the earth.”
He plans to make an additional donation of $2 million directly to the Jewish Agency for Israel next week.
His donation will come on top of an $11 million allocation approved by the Jewish Agency this week for the immigration and absorption of immigrants from Russia, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia.
Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, said he expected most of the money to go toward the Kwara Jews’ transportation and resettlement in Israel.
Calling the flight a “harbinger of good news.” Jankelowitz said he hoped the flight marked the “beginning of the end of bringing the last Jews out of Ethiopia.”
In related news, Israel dismissed as “nonsense” a report in the London-based newsletter Foreign Report that said it traded arms for the release of the Kwara Jews to Ethiopia.