A small group of toddlers are singing a Hebrew nursery rhyme in a room filled with Israeli posters. Their teacher asks them in Hebrew to point at their tummies, then their noses and their ears.
It could be any kindergarten class in Israel, but this Africa and these children are part of the last group of Ethiopian immigrants to be brought to Israel.
The class is organised by the Jewish Agency, which is in charge of the logistics of Ethiopian emigration to Israel. So while the children are learning Hebrew at the community centre in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, their parents are sitting in nearby classrooms, listening to lectures about life in Israel and learning some basic Hebrew themselves.
The children’s teacher, Gitacho Tekaba, is finding it hard to match the enthusiasm of his pupils. He was born in Gondar 24 years ago and has been teaching at the kindergarten for three years now. Like the children’s parents, he also put in a request to emigrate but has been turned down by the Israeli Interior Ministry. He does not know if he will ever be allowed to go to Israel, and the departure of the last group this week means that the Jewish Agency facilities are closing down so he is also losing his job.
“I have lived here between despair and hope, not doing anything with my life,” Mr Tekaba says bitterly. About 1,900 other members of the Falashmura community in Gondar have been turned down, many of them, like Mr Tekaba, now face an uncertain future.
Worke Germai has also worked at the community centre, teaching Jewish customs, and is now contemplating her future. She disputes the ministry’s decision. “If I had no connection to the Jewish people, why did they allow my mother to go to Israel?” she asks. “Even if I cannot emigrate soon, I will cling to my Jewishness,” she promises. “I believe in God who will one day take me to Eretz Yisrael.”
Nearly all of those who have been turned down have relatives in Israel. In recent weeks, those in Israel have been trying frantically to get their loved ones on the list as the end of the emigration operation approached.
Many of them have spoken to Asher Siyum, the chief representative of the Jewish Agency in Ethiopia, responsible for all aspects of emigration to Israel. “Everyone calls me or reaches me on Facebook, asking ‘what about my sister and mother?’,” says Mr Siyum, who emigrated himself from Ethiopia in 1985 at the age of 12. “For them I represent the state of Israel — but it’s the Interior Ministry that decides.”
Mr Siyum’s job is to take care of those authorised for aliyah, but also spends a lot of his time dealing with those who have been turned down and with the anger of their families in Israel. “It’s very important that we don’t create any illusions,” he says. “We helped all those who were supposed eventually to reach Israel and now our mission is over.”
After Operation Solomon in May 1991, the Israeli government assumed that with the Beita Yisrael community all in Israel, emigration from Ethiopia was over. But an entire second community remained behind — the Falashmura, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity from the end of the 19th century. They were claiming that their forefathers had been forced to convert, that they had lived in distinct communities all these years and that now they were returning to Judaism.
The Beita Yisrael was split between those who saw them as renegades now trying to profit from their long-forgotten roots; others with relatives among the Falashmura called for them to be allowed to emigrate. Committees were created and policy formulated and reformulated.
Ten years ago, the government accepted the ruling by former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the Falashmura could be considered Jewish — although they would be required to undergo conversion to Judaism upon their arrival in Israel — and anyone who could prove to “descended from Jews on their mother’s side” would be allowed to emigrate. But this criterion still means that extended families are split.
“Everyone says they have family in Israel, so why can’t they come?” says Mr Siyum. “I explain that Beita Israel stuck to its roots and made it to Israel. Now we are giving a chance to the descendants of those who converted to Christianity but they would not normally be eligible for citizenship [according to the Law of Return], so they are getting preferential treatment.”
On Wednesday afternoon, two chartered jets landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, bringing with them 450 new immigrants to Israel. They were greeted by government ministers and leaders of Jewish organisations in an event that was titled “the end of the journey”.
As far as the Israeli government is concerned, this is indeed the end of a three-decade long saga in which over 90,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel, first in a series of clandestine flights from Sudan, then in the 1991 Operation Solomon airlift and, over the past 21 years, in organised groups flying from Addis Ababa with the co-operation of the Ethiopian government.
The government sought to end the aliyah operations from Ethiopia several times, claiming that all the Jews were already in Israel. Eventually, however, they were forced to re-open the process.
The pressure from Ethiopian-Israelis whose family members were left behind, from Jewish-American leaders, rabbis and politicians sympathetic to their cause, was always too great.
In July 2008, the government once again announced that it had brought all the members of the Falashmura community who were eligible for Israeli citizenship and that it was closing down operations. A public campaign ensued to re-examine the cases of 8,500 Falashmura who remained behind and, in November 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved Operation Wings of a Dove to bring what is now supposed to be the last group to Israel.
Over the past two and a half years, 7,000 more arrived, including those who landed on Wednesday, and a new campaign is already under way. Behind the campaign are members of a younger generation of Israeli-Ethiopians, some of them born in Israel. Unlike their parents who were usually passive, allowing others to take on their battles, this generation insists on fighting for itself against what they see as the discriminatory policy of the government. The campaign is mainly on Facebook, where they post photographs and stories of their relatives back in Ethiopia.
“The main struggle now is of the younger people,” says Amsalo Lagas, an 18-year old fighting to secure the emigration of his grandmother, Yevzalam Aileo. “We are fed up with all this bureaucracy and the assumption that our brothers are not Jews,” he says.
“Who decides who is a Jew?” asks his cousin, Chen Asmamo, angrily. “Who said you are Jewish? I can say that you are not. Who can even prove such a thing? Why can foreign workers from Sudan and Eritrea live here but Jews, part of our people, are forbidden?”