RISHON LETZION, Israel—Tadello Blilin cries herself to sleep almost every night. Each morning, the 58-year-old mother of nine wakes up hoping that the Israeli government finally will allow her daughters to join her in a dreary, cramped apartment in this Tel Aviv suburb.
In 2006, Tadello fulfilled her lifelong dream of making Aliyah—the Hebrew word for one of the most fundamental Israeli laws, the right of every Jew to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. Tadello’s parents and siblings had already moved here in previous waves of Ethiopian immigration. She, her husband and their children had been on a waiting list for nine years before they were finally granted permission.
Yet at the last minute, she says, Israeli authorities told her that her two older daughters, who were married, would need to take a separate flight with their husbands. Tadello didn’t want to board the flight in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, without all of her children. But the authorities assured her that her two daughters would be on the next flight.
“The government promised us it would take a week, a month, two months tops,” Tadello tells me through tears. “It’s been almost 13 years.” Her daughters, Sintayo, 29, and Nigust, 32, now have children of their own. She shows me pictures of her six grandchildren, whom she has never met and fears she never will.
Like many Ethiopian-Israelis of her generation, Tadello cannot speak fluent Hebrew or English. The Israeli absorption centers that were designed to help Ethiopian immigrants integrate into Israeli society are infamous among Ethiopians here for having failed horribly at that mission. Tadello speaks to me in Amharic as her daughter Sefi translates.
“We wanted to make Aliyah because we are Jews and this is our homeland,” says Tadello. “But if they had told me then that I’d have to wait 13 years to see my daughters again, there’s no way I would have come here. It would have been better if they left us there instead of splitting us apart.”
On the wall opposite the couch on which she sits hangs a large photo of her younger daughter in an Israeli military uniform. She serves in an Israeli combat unit. Tadello’s son has been in the Israeli Air Force for six years. “Our family is serving this country,” she says. “As a mother who gives her children to this country, this is what it gives me in return?”
As heartbreaking as Tadello’s story is, it’s not unique among Israel’s Ethiopian population.
Israel is home to over 145,000 Ethiopian Jews, who call themselves Beta Israel, or the House of Israel. Historians say they descended from the lost tribe of Dan, representing a scattered remnant of the ancient Israelites. Others tie their ancestry to Emperor Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who ruled Ethiopia around 950 B.C. Yet today’s Israeli government rejects the notion that many Ethiopian Jews are in fact Jewish.
After rescuing Ethiopian Jews from persecution and famine in much-publicized operations throughout the 1980s and early '90s, the Israeli government claimed there were no Jews left in Ethiopia. Yet 8,000 of them remain there, in impoverished conditions, waiting to be reunited with their families in Israel. Many are like the Blilin sisters, separated from their parents or children years ago by an Israeli government that assured them they'd be on the next flight to Israel. As a result, nearly every Ethiopian-Israeli family has its own painful story of separation.
Ahead of Israeli elections in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned for the support of the Ethiopian population by exploiting its pain. Blasting previous governments for halting Ethiopian immigration, Netanyahu vowed to bring home all of the Jews left behind in Ethiopia—9,000 at the time. His government unanimously approved a plan to complete that process by 2020.
The gesture came on the heels of violent protests that erupted after a young Ethiopian man was brutally beaten by two white Israeli policemen. The attack, reminiscent of those in the United States, was caught on camera. The young Ethiopian turned out to be an Israeli soldier whose beating epitomized the feeling of thousands of young Ethiopians who serve their country yet feel their country does not serve them.
Netanyahu never followed through on his 2015 promise. The government's plan to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel was shelved after three months due to a lack of funding. Just 1,300 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated since then, leaving 8,000 in Ethiopia waiting to be reunited with their families.
According to Avraham Neguise, a Knesset member from the ruling Likud party who was born in Ethiopia, over 80 percent of Jews there have immediate family members living in Israel. The Jews left behind are labeled Falashmura, a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity generations ago. It's derived from a derogatory word Ethiopian Christians used to call Jews.
“In Ethiopia people treated us like that wasn’t our country, like Falasha,” says Tadello. “They said we belong here in Israel. Now we’re here and people treat us like we belong in Ethiopia.”
Because Israel’s Interior Ministry does not consider Falashmura to be Jewish, Ethiopian Jews cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, which allows any Jew around the world to become an Israeli citizen. Unlike Jews from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, Ethiopian Jews need special permission from the Israeli government to make Aliyah.
This unique status separates Ethiopian Jews from all other Jewish communities, including Jews from the former Soviet Union. Their Judaism also is questioned by religious authorities because Jews were persecuted under Soviet rule and many abandoned religion or became Christian. Nevertheless, Jews of the former Soviet Union were not prevented from becoming citizens, and nearly 1 million immigrated here in the ’90s. Today they are the largest ethnic group among Israeli Jews, representing one sixth of the Jewish population, according to government data.
“If we were white, we wouldn’t have this problem,” says Sefi, Tadello’s 23-year-old daughter. “No one has the right to say I’m less Jewish because of the color of my skin.”
In September, Netanyahu finally approved the migration of another 1,300 Ethiopian Jews, most of them parents with children in Israel. Israel’s Ethiopian community took offense at this announcement. After all, the government had already promised to bring the entire community here three years ago. Activists say it’s just another attempt to delay a decision Netanyahu and his government would rather not make.
Indeed, this was the second time this year that Netanyahu has paid lip service to this cause. In February, he made the very same announcement, which has yet to be carried out. At the time, opposition lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich told reporters, “There are forces in the government that are not interested in bringing them to Israel because they do not consider them Jewish. The motivation here, unfortunately, is racism.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined a request for comment.
According to the Jewish Agency, which manages Jewish immigration on behalf of the Israeli government, it has received no timeline or other details in order to carry out Netanyahu’s promises. “We’re still waiting for instructions,” said Yigal Palmor, the agency’s spokesman. “The government says it ran out of money for this purpose. If and when they will find the budget for it, then Ethiopian Aliyah will continue.”
In an interview on Israeli radio, Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s opponent in the 2015 elections, called on the government to carry out its 2015 decision. “This is something that cries out to the heavens in terms of its injustice,” said Herzog, who has made Ethiopian Aliyah a primary goal since he took over the Jewish Agency in August from Natan Sharansky, a hero of Soviet Jewry.
The Jews of Ethiopia are more observant than the average Israeli, says Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a leading scholar of Ethiopian Jewry who also serves as the community’s chief rabbi. For the last 26 years he has traveled back and forth between the two countries every few weeks, and he notes the Jewish community of Ethiopia maintains a religious lifestyle, complete with Sabbath observance, prayers three times a day, religious study, and a kosher diet. “Whoever says they’re not Jews either doesn’t understand, or they’re lying,” says Waldman. “How are they different from the Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert and then returned to Judaism?” Waldman continues. “This is the only time we have refused Jews who returned to our people. We have never had this in our history. Only for the Jews of Ethiopia."
Ethiopian Jews used to live in the country’s villages, but today they are concentrated in Gondar and Addis Ababa. “They came to the cities just to make Aliyah and they are stuck there,” says Waldman. “In Addis all of them are there for 20 years, no less. In Gondar between seven to 25 years. About 3,000 have died waiting.”
The Ethiopian population is among the most disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society, with the highest poverty rate among Israeli Jews. The community is plagued by institutionalized discrimination, suffering disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration. To this day, every Ethiopian Jew who immigrates to Israel is forced to undergo a Jewish conversion, the only ethnic group for which this rule applies. Waldman performs many of those conversions for the Jewish Agency.
Activists say racism is the only explanation for Israel’s refusal to grant Ethiopian Jews the right of return that is given to every other Jewish community. Israel’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews stands in stark contrast to the welcome embrace it gives to the tens of thousands of Jews who immigrate each year from America, France, the U.K., and elsewhere. The difference, activists say, is that those Jews are white. This writer, who is white, became an Israeli citizen through the right of return. The entire process took about two months, and was easier than getting a driver’s license.
Israel’s discrimination toward Ethiopian Jews did not begin under Netanyahu. This prejudice dates back to the early years of the Jewish state. While the young Israeli government integrated over a million Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Middle East throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the country’s leader ignored calls to absorb the Jews of Ethiopia, who yearned for their return to Zion. Members of Beta Israel had tried to emigrate as early as 1862, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews followed their religious leader, Abba Mahari, on a desert journey that ended in tragedy. Facing starvation and disease, many died along the way.
Israel’s religious authorities refused to accept Ethiopian Jews as Jewish until 1973, when Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, ruled that they are indeed Jewish and that Israel’s Law of Return also applies to them. Two years later, the Israeli government adopted that stance, expanding the Law of Return to include Ethiopian Jewry. Still, it wasn’t until 1977 that the Israeli government actually began bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel. That year, under direction from Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Mossad launched a string of now-legendary missions that brought over 40,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just over a decade.
From 1977 until 1984, a secret Mossad operation involving arms sales to the Ethiopian government, a fake scuba diving company in Sudan, and Israeli naval ships disguised as tourist boats brought some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Another 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Sudan between 1984 and 1985 as part of Operation Moses, which rescued them from a severe famine. That operation ended when Arab countries shamed the Sudanese government for supporting Zionism, leading Mossad agents to flee Sudan with the help of the CIA. Many of those agents were Ethiopian Jews who risked their lives and were in some cases tortured or killed by Ethiopian and Sudanese forces. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had planned to go to Israel as part of Operation Moses were left stranded in Sudan.
When the Ethiopian civil war ended with the toppling of the government in 1991, Israel sensed a window had opened. In less than 36 hours, the Israeli military flew nearly 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Operation Solomon set a world record for the number of people airlifted in the shortest amount of time.
Since then, however, just drips and drops of Ethiopians have emigrated to Israel—not for lack of desire but, as noted, for lack of permission from the Israeli government. In 2005, Ethiopians in Addis Ababa staged a hunger strike in protest at the haphazard Israeli policies that had torn families apart. The 2015 protests against racism in Israel echoed previous demonstrations by the Ethiopian community, who have suffered from discrimination ever since their arrival in Israel. In 1996, violent clashes erupted outside the office of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, after Israelis learned that the national blood bank was disposing of blood donated by Ethiopians over suspicions that it might be tainted by HIV.
For the Blilin family, the government’s refusal to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel represents the worst kind of betrayal. Tadello is a religious woman, and she had lived all her life in Ethiopia dreaming of a return to the Jewish homeland. “We thought our suffering would end when we finally made Aliyah,” she says. “Only a new suffering began.”