When Israel first threw open its doors in 1984 to Jewish immigration from Ethiopia, the move was rightly hailed as a watershed moment in Zionist history. The Jewish state had become, as Israeli officials and Jewish activists justly boasted, the only country in human history to welcome masses of African immigrants as brothers, not slaves.
Today this legacy is in doubt, jeopardized by Jerusalem’s continuing and shameful failure to finish the job. More than 18,000 Jews, members of the so-called Falash Mura community, are still in Ethiopia, waiting in dreadful conditions for their turn to come home.
Time and again, ministers in successive Israeli governments, including former Soviet dissidents who should know better, have erected bureaucratic roadblocks in front of this community, which consists mainly of persons once converted from Judaism to Christianity under duress, or their descendants, who have since returned to Judaism. Religious leaders from across the Jewish denominational spectrum, citing centuries of rabbinic precedent, have decreed that these Ethiopians are to be considered Jewish. Israel’s Interior Ministry has been ordered by the nation’s courts to step up its evaluation of their immigration applications. Prime Minister Sharon’s first government pledged to bring most of them to Israel.
And still they languish, after a decade of waiting in squalid, ever worsening conditions. The previous government’s plan has stalled under new leadership at the Interior Ministry, now controlled by the Shinui party, which appears to combine the most extreme anti-clerical disdain for traditional sentiments of Jewish solidarity with a disregard — betraying the party’s neoconservative roots — for the human rights aspects of the issue.
Sharon certainly deserves praise for his long record of working to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but that community’s dire situation cries out for the prime minister to finish this chapter in the Zionist saga once and for all. Sharon must bulldoze through the remaining opposition, whether in his Cabinet or among mid-level bureaucrats at the Interior Ministry and the Jewish Agency for Israel. If Israel’s prime minister fails to meet the challenge, then history will remember Ethiopia not as the country from which Israel brought Africans out free, but as the first place where Jews were deliberately abandoned by their brothers and sisters in Israel.