by Darryl Egnal
Operation Dove’s Wings saw the start of the final stage of the Ethiopian Aliyah when about 240 Falash Mura landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Monday afternoon. In a joint operation between the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency, the 30-year campaign to bring Ethiopian Jews home to Israel will draw to a close at the end of 2013. About 2,000 Ethiopian Jews are expected over the next year.
Landing in Israel was the event that many of the Falash Mura have been dreaming about for years. When they walked onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1, the same terminal that welcomed their family members 25 to 30 years ago – family they haven’t seen since then – they dropped to their knees and kissed the ground.
The Falash Mura have been living in refugee camps in Gondar, Ethiopia, in appalling conditions in tin-roofed huts with no toilets, no running water and no electricity, some of them for over a decade and some of them for a year longer than originally promised.
Last year, the Israeli government instructed The Agency to reduce the flow of Ethiopian immigrants (olim) to only 110 per month, a 45% reduction from the rate of 200 per month that it promised in November 2010, delaying their Aliyah by a year.
While they wait in the camps in Gondar, The Agency has been trying to make their lives easier by operating a community center, headed by Asher Sium, a successful Ethiopian immigrant who made Aliyah at 17 and has a Master’s degree under his belt. He and other staff at the community center provide services for the waiting olim, providing a comprehensive range of social services with the support of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
These services include humanitarian assistance, catering services and preparation classes for Aliyah run by a group of volunteers. The center also has a school in which the students can learn Hebrew and Jewish studies as well as the regular curriculum of the Ethiopian Education Ministry.
Jewish Agency volunteers, Yaira Jesselson and Lihi Koren, spent the past three months in Ethiopia teaching the immigrants about Israeli life and culture, helping them with their Hebrew and spending time with them.
“It was an amazing experience, getting to know the people, the families and learning about their interesting culture,” said Koren. Communicating with them wasn’t easy, but they had help. “We learned a little of the language, but mostly, we had people translating for us.”
“We made friends while we were there,” said Jesselson. “And the children wanted to know Hebrew so they were always asking us to teach them. At the same time, they taught us a few Ethiopian words.”
Koren was excited to see the immigrants in Israel finally. “I think it’s like closing the circle. We taught them for a few months and now we’re meeting them here. I hope it will be easier for them to get used to the Israeli culture having had our help,” she said.
Jumping the final hurdle
This past July, the Israeli government finally decided to increase the rate of Aliyah from Ethiopia in order to complete the process as quickly as possible, resulting in Operation Dove’s Wings and this first charter flight.
Part of the process was turning the Ibim Student Village in the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council into an absorption center, which will be able to accommodate up to 600 of the Falash Mura. The immigrants arriving over the next year will be housed in this and 16 other absorption centers around the country, which are run by The Jewish Agency and Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.
In order to facilitate the Aliyah and absorption of the new immigrants, Jewish communities around the world and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raised 12 million shekel in addition to the five and a half million shekel invested by the Ministry.
Soon after their arrival at Ben Gurion, the Ethiopians were reunited with their Israeli families amid tears and laughter. Emotions were high and the excitement was palpable. Once they’d refreshed and eaten, they were extended a warm welcome by the Israeli government and the many partners involved in making their dream a reality.
Natan Sharansky reminisced about his first contact with the Ethiopian Aliyah:
“I feel very good that I have the honor of writing the last chapter of this story. I read about it for the first time in the Soviet press when I was in prison. They were writing about it with anger – that the Israeli army had invaded a country in Africa, caught hostages, given them the name, Falash Mura, said they were Jews and brought them to Israel in Operation Moshe. That’s how I found out that Israel started doing something really special – bringing Jews from Africa,” he said.
“Then there was Operation Shlomo and it was really great to participate in it as an activist, and after this, the decision – and I was part of this – to bring the rest of the Falash Mura to Israel. And now we’re writing the last pages. We are bringing the Falashim from Africa and they are becoming full citizens of the State. There is no other example in the history of humanity of such a thing.
“And it could happen only because there is a State of Israel and there is strong unity between the Jews of the world, our great partners and friends, the Christians, and the State of Israel,” said Sharansky.
Also in attendance was Sofa Landver, Minister of Immigrant Absorption, who had visited Gondar last year and met many of the new immigrants who arrived on this flight. When they were interviewed, most of them said they remembered her from her trip and were happy to shake her hand when she walked among them at the welcome ceremony.
During her visit to Ethiopia, she had said to them: “I promise you that the next time we meet, we’re going to meet here in Israel,” and she was pleased to be able to keep this promise.
The ceremony took place during The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting, many of whom attended the airport ceremony.