African Youth Leaders On US Fundraising Tour To Help 9,000 Ethiopian Jews Immigrate To Israel

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch are traveling through the U.S. for five weeks seeking funding and donations to bring their Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel.

They’re visiting New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Florida, where they’re telling their story to kids at summer camps, students at Jewish fraternity houses, the Women’s Zionist organization of America — Hadassah — and other Jewish leadership groups and federations.

Money has never before been an issue when it comes to helping Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel — until now, AFP reported, according to Times Of Israel.

Two years after saying there were no more Jews left in Ethiopia, the Israeli government in November approved a proposal to allow thousands of Ethiopians claiming Jewish descent to immigrate.

The approval stalled three months later when the Israeli prime minister’s office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption was not part of the budget.

In April, the government agreed to find the necessary funds, but a Knesset shake-up in late May stalled the proceedings again, AFP reported.

The immigration of the “last” 9,000 Jews was expected to begin in June and continue for about five years, but no plans have been made to restart the immigration process.

North American Jews played a major role in previous waves of Ethiopian immigration to Israel, starting in 1984 and throughout the 1990s.

Ethiopia’s indigenous Jewish community are often called Falasha, or “outsiders” in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians and Jews.

An estimated 78,000 Falasha have immigrated to Israel since 1980, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, Forward reported. Israel is home to 130,000 Israeli citizens and their descendants who immigrated from Ethiopia, according to BBC.

In the 1980s, famines drove hundreds of thousands, including Falasha, to refugee camps at the Sudanese border, their only escape route. Israel’s covert Operation Moses (1984 to 1985) rescued nearly 7,000 Jews from the camps and brought them to Israel. Thousands more never made it, Forward reported.

In 1991, facing pressure from several Jewish Diaspora organizations, the Americans and Israelis pushed to accelerate the Falasha emigration. In response, the Mengistu government reportedly offered to let Falasha immigrate in return for Israeli arms.

In Operation Solomon, Israel airlifted more than 14,000 Falasha — most of whom had never seen a plane before — to Israel from Addis Ababa in 36 hours.

The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry was a large force in Ethiopia, providing schools and feeding programs for children and mothers, though they sometimes clashed with the Jewish Agency.

Some rabbis in the White Plains, New York, area have organized and funded a speaking tour for the two Ethiopian Jewish youth leaders independently of any organizations or movements, Times of Israel reported.

“We want the Ethiopian (immigration to Israel) to be higher on the agenda,” said David Elcott, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service who teaches organizing and public advocacy. “They said that they weren’t bringing Ethiopians to Israel because there isn’t money. At no time since the establishment of Israel has Israel said we won’t bring people in because of money.”

The speaking tour is meant to mobilize the American Jewish community to put pressure on Israel from the diaspora, Elcott said. The idea is to emphasize that welcoming exiles is a Jewish issue rather than an Israeli issue.

American Jews have been passionate about helping pay for endangered Jews around the world to immigrate to Israel. They did it for for Ethiopians in 1984 and 1991, when large numbers came to Israel in Operation Solomon and Operation Moses, and they helped pay for Russian Jews too, Elcott said.

The Israeli Law of Return stipulates that all Jews can get citizenship in Israel.

Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch at Times Square, New York, Aug. 6, 2016. Photo: Ryan Porush/Times of Israel
Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch at Times Square, NYC, Aug. 6. Photo: Ryan Porush/Times of Israel

Dereve, 21, is in 11th grade in Gondar. He was forced to repeat four years of school because the Ethiopian government did not recognize the Jewish school he attended, which was organized by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. Dereve speaks fluent Hebrew.

He said he is still in Ethiopia because the Interior Ministry said his maternal grandmother was not Jewish, which disqualified him from immigrating to Israel.

Deboch, 24, is studying tourism management at the University of Gondar. “Never in my life did I think I’d be learning at university in Ethiopia,” he told AFP. “I always thought I’d be in university in Israel.”

Both Dereve and Deboch said they are aware of the racism that Ethiopians face in Israel. That’s not the point. “Across the world there are Jews … if they want to move to Israel they can go tomorrow. But we can’t. I’ve been waiting for 15 years to go to Israel.”

The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry runs educational programs for Ethiopian and at-risk students in Israel. Founder and director Barbara Ribokove Gordon said she was “anguished” over the 9,000 Jews still left in Ethiopia, but acknowledged that getting the issue back on the agenda for North American Jews is a big challenge.

“It’s old news,” she said. “People feel like, ‘Oh, all of them are in Israel.’ Israel … must have had a reason for leaving them behind.’ It isn’t the way it was in the ’80s and ’90s when it was still new and exciting and heartwarming.”

Ethiopia has been making world headlines over anti-government protests, especially in Amhara state where Gondar is located — home to many remaining Ethiopian Jews. An estimated 50 to 100 protesters were killed Aug. 6 and 7 protesting government repression and land rights issues. The government switched off the Internet so news of the protests only began trickling out days later, AFP reported.

With the current controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the American Jewish community should take a special interest in the plight of Ethiopian Jews, Elcott told AFP. “In America, race has been a central area of Jewish concern historically,” Elcott said. “We say, we have black lives that matter in Africa.”