Ethiopia is home to more than 8,000 Jews who desperately wish to settle permanently in Israel. They are asking Israeli officials to come to their rescue and give them a home in what they call the Holy Land - and escape the grinding poverty and violence of recent years in some parts of Ethiopia.
In February this year, representatives of the Jewish community threatened to go on hunger strike if Israel decided to do away with funding aimed at allowing Ethiopian Jews to join their families there. At the time, hundreds of people gathered at a synagogue in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa to express concern that Israel's latest proposed budget removed this funding.
“Most of us have relatives in Israel,” said Melaku Tassew, who’s 34 and hoping to settle in Israel as soon as he can. “We are in acute poverty here. We are suffering in a foreign land. I don’t understand why the Israelis are treating us as such. Are we not one of their own?”
In 1991 at the time of Ethiopia’s civil war, Israel famously carried out Operation Solomon, a dramatic airlift of some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in less than two days. Later in 2015, the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to bring any remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“Most of our family members are in Israel. Several of our brothers and sisters who took dangerous routes to see their relatives in Israel died during their journey," Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa, told AP in February.
He said Addis Ababa's Ethiopian Jews, who make up around 800 households, will hold a hunger strike if the Israeli government doesn't respond. "We have had enough here. What have we done wrong to suffer this much?" he said, bursting into tears and prompting others to cry. Several people carried photos of their loved ones who are already in Israel.
Most Ethiopian Jews live in the northern Amhara region. They are considered outcasts in Ethiopian society and most of them live below the poverty line - even by Ethiopian standards.
A letter shown to 7Dnews indicates the Jewish community has written to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying they wish immediately and without precondition to settle in Israel and join family members.
"We will never lose hope of going to Israel," the letter says. "Dear Mr. Prime Minister, we want you to make our wish a reality. We ask you this in the name of Our God, Israel's God."
"Over 70 percent of them have close relatives in Israel. Parents have been separated from their children for over two decades in some cases," said Alisa Bodner, spokesperson for The Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. "In 2015, the Israeli government made a unanimous decision to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel and bring an end to this suffering. This decision has not been executed."
Avraham Neguise, an MP who chairs the Israeli parliament’s Absorption and Diaspora Committee, has accused the government of discrimination, saying it makes it easy for other diaspora communities to immigrate, but not for Ethiopian Jews.
“You cannot find any other communities where the parents are here and children are there, and children are here and parents are there and are forced to be separated,” he said. “It is only the Ethiopian Jewish community, not the Americans, not the Russians, not Europeans. If this isn’t discrimination, what do you call it?”
Of the Ethiopian Jews remaining in Ethiopia, 783 are separated from their children and over 2,000 have parents or siblings in Israel, he said.
The origin of the Ethiopian Jews is unclear but a popular legend says they descended from the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian Jews are often referred to in Ethiopia as “Falashas,” a derogatory word which translates into “strangers” or “migrants.”