Ethiopian airlift to resume Wednesday; 3,000 immigrants expected this year

Operation Rock of Israel aims to reunite families, some of whom have been separated for decades. 

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

After a delay of over half a year, Ethiopian aliyah to Israel will restart Wednesday with a flight of some 180 new immigrants, marking the first of a hopeful 3,000 who will come this year, Israel Hayom reported Thursday.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian immigrant herself who had vowed since taking office to enable her countrymen to reunite with family members long in the country, was very pleased to share the news.

“I am happy that after months of long struggles, which included a budget struggle, a government decision and a victory in the High Court, immigration from Ethiopia is renewed,” she said. “This is a continuation of the journey to redress the injustice done to many families among Ethiopian Jews and as I promised I will not leave anyone behind.”

Family reunification is the big theme, as often only certain siblings, children or parents received permission to come to Israel from the authorities over the years, in what Ethiopian activists have decried as arbitrary decisions.

In one example featured in Israel Hayom, two siblings were allowed to emigrate 20 years ago, but their parents and seven other siblings have been waiting in Gondar ever since for the go-ahead. The parents, who have never seen their Israeli grandchildren, did not allow their other children to marry, due to the fear that if they had families, some would be left behind again at some future point.

The mission, dubbed Operation Rock of Israel, is taking place with the aid of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and other Israeli and American groups that are working closely with Tamano-Shata’s ministry to bring the Ethiopians in and then help them integrate into their new society.

Tamano-Shata and Jewish Agency acting chairman Yaakov Hagoel are flying to Addis Ababa Tuesday together with senior officials of the other organizations in order to be on the first flight. A second plane with some 160 immigrants is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Friday.

Israel’s cabinet had voted to proceed with the operation in November, but a petition to the High Court by the Center for Immigration Policy against the decision delayed its implementation. The petition was withdrawn in March after the state argued that “serious humanitarian reasons underlie” the government’s decision.

The Ethiopian government has been fighting a rebellion in the Tigray region of the country for the last year and a half that has sometimes spread to other parts of the country, including Amhara, where many of the Beta Israel still live. Although an uneasy truce has been in effect since March, there is concern that fighting could break out again.

Ethiopian Jewry’s somber Jerusalem Day

The timing of the first aliyah flight of 2022 is significant to the Ethiopian community, as the new immigrants will arrive the same week as the 28th of Iyyar, the Hebrew date of Jerusalem Day.

This is Israel’s official Memorial Day for some 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died while trying to make their way to Israel from 1977-1990.

While joyous celebrations take place in the rest of the capital to commemorate the anniversary of the reunification of the city during the Six-Day War of 1967, the Ethiopian community marks Jerusalem Day in such a solemn way because Jerusalem was specifically their aim and dream for over a thousand years as they preserved their heritage in Africa.

Tens of thousands crossed Ethiopia on foot to Sudan on brutal journeys and were then smuggled to Israel by air or by sea by Israeli intelligence and IDF officers.

There is an annual state memorial ceremony in the capital’s Mount Herzl cemetery, attended by the prime minister, president, and other members of the government. Some 1,700 names of those who perished on their journey are engraved on a monument there, and each year, Ethiopians tell the stories of how some of their loved ones met their deaths while trying to reach Jerusalem.