Last Wednesday, two jetliners flew 450 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
They were the last to arrive under an official program designed to bring to Israel all remaining Ethiopian Jews who are eligible for citizenship.
At the Tel Aviv airport just before the planes landed, everyone seemed excited. Relatives of people arriving from Ethiopia cheered when the plane doors opened.
Achenef Chekole arrived with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Family and friends who had already immigrated to Israel greeted them with hugs.
Israel has a whole government department in charge of absorbing immigrants. Its minister, Sofa Landver, welcomed the newcomers.
“After thousands of years of prayers and hopes, you are here at home,” Landver told the immigrants.
The Jewish origins of these Ethiopians are murky.
One theory: They’re the offspring of the Jewish King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, a thousand years before Christ.
Another theory: They fled Jerusalem during wars with Rome around 500 B.C.
Whatever the history, Shula Mola grew up in a tiny Ethiopian village keeping Shabbat and hearing the story of Jerusalem.
“Not the story of real Jerusalem. It’s something like imagination of Jerusalem,” Mola says. “Jerusalem with the temple. Jerusalem of people who were close to God. It was very concrete for me. “
Her journey to Jerusalem started on foot: across the desert from Ethiopia into Sudan, with dozens of other Ethiopian Jews. Twelve years old, she survived bandits, hunger and miles without shoes. Shula was flown from Sudan to Israel in 1984. After imagining the triumph of arrival for so long, she was surprised that most Israelis at the airport didn’t seem to notice.
“They didn’t give us hug, they didn’t give us kiss. I mean, it’s big deal. We are here!”
Secret flights from Sudan brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel that year, in the first mass immigration operation. The U.S. helped lay the groundwork with aid to Sudan.
Nate Shapiro had gotten involved in the effort even earlier. A Chicago businessman, he headed the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.
“We first flew I think four or five out to Frankfurt from Khartoum, then we flew 14 out, then we flew two out. We found out there were thousands of people leaving Sudan, moving into the European workforce at the time. We looked into why that was happening, and it turned out they were buying passports. So we bought 500 passports that were forged,” Shapiro says, laughing.
Shapiro calls it a time of real innovation. In the early ‘90s, Israel paid the then dictator of Ethiopia $35 million to let 14,000 Jews go, in less than two days. Much of the money came from the U.S. Jewish community. That operation brought most of the Ethiopians who had continually practiced Judaism to Israel. But it left behind thousands of Ethiopians with Jewish roots, but who had converted to Christianity.
Whether to let them immigrate to Israel sparked a huge debate.
“Some of the Israelis said that they’re not Jews any more,” recalls Yehuda Sharf, who directs immigration services for The Jewish Agency, whose mission is to bring Jews from anywhere to Israel. “There was anti-Semitism also in Ethiopia. And some of the Jews, they converted themselves to Christianity to get a more comfortable life in Ethiopia.”
In Israel, rabbis disagreed on whether these converts counted as Jews. The Israeli government made different decisions and decrees over the years. In the end, a complicated vetting process was approved, and a decision made to wrap up the program. This week’s flight was the last official large scale migration of Ethiopian Jews.