Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants get warm welcome in Israel

Some 300 people landed on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, with many waving flags or stopping to kiss the ground as they streamed off the aircraft onto a red carpet.

By Associated Press

Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants on Thursday arrived to a festive ceremony at Israel’s international airport, as the government took a step toward carrying out its pledge to reunite hundreds of families split between the two countries.

Some 300 people landed on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, with many waving flags or stopping to kiss the ground as they streamed off the aircraft onto a red carpet. Many were dressed in traditional Ethiopian robes, and many women held babies in their arms. Festive Hebrew songs were blasted over loudspeakers.

Although the families are of Jewish descent and many are practicing Jews, Israel does not consider them Jewish under religious law. Instead, they were permitted to enter the country under a family-unification program that requires special government approval.

A large delegation of Israeli officials welcomed the group, and Pnina Tamano-Shata, the country’s first Ethiopian-born Cabinet minister, traveled to Ethiopia to join them on the flight.

“My wife Sara and myself were standing there with tears in our eyes,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a welcoming ceremony. “This is the essence of our Jewish story, the essence of the Zionist story.”

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Community activists have accused the government of dragging its feet in implementing a 2015 decision to bring all remaining Ethiopians of Jewish lineage to Israel within five years. Netanyahu’s Likud party repeated that pledge before national elections early this year.

Activists for Ethiopian Aliyah, a group promoting family unification, estimates some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews remain behind in Ethiopia, some of whom have been waiting for years to join their families.

Israel is home to the largest community of Ethiopian Jews in the world, about 150,000. Most were brought in by Israel’s government in Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991).

Initially, the Mossad helped Ethiopian Jews escape through Sudan. Some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews were smuggled to Israel in that early effort. The story was recently made into a Netflix movie, “The Red Sea Diving Resort” starring Chris Evans of Captain America fame.