Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ended his four-nation tour of Africa with a visit to Ethiopia. Israel and Ethiopia have a long history of diplomatic relations, and Ethiopia boasts a significant Jewish population, but Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to visit the East African nation of over 100 million people. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria.
The Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, trace their ancestry back thousands of years to the lost Hebrew tribe of Dan or to the Jews who left the conquered Kingdom of Judah for Egypt following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC. Estimates put the number of Ethiopian Jews currently living in Ethiopia at about 9000. Another 150,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today.
Beginning in 1984, Israel launched a massive resettlement program that airlifted more than 25,000 of the Jewish population in Ethiopia and relocated them to Israel. The exercise rescued tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews from the war and famine that ravaged Ethiopia at that time and the discrimination that they endured.
For several reasons, a number of Ethiopian Jews were left behind during those airlift operations in the ’80s; speaking about their situation at a joint press briefing with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, Netanyahu promised to effect their reunification with the larger Ethiopian Jewish population in Israel in the near future.
“On bringing to Israel members of the [Ethiopian Jewish] community that are still here, we are doing so, we have a commitment, we are fulfilling it on a humanitarian level of family reunification, it will not happen in the future it will happen now under the current budget – we are committed to a certain programme and we are advancing it,” Netanayhu stated.
While the Jews in Ethiopia look forward to joining the rest of their community in Israel, after several years of waiting, they may well not find their new home in Israel to be everything they have hoped for. Poor planning and a lack of foresight by the Israeli authorities has led to a failure to genuinely integrate the Ethiopian Jews with the rest of Israeli society.
The Ethiopian Jewish population in Israel has been poorly treated and discriminated against continuously since they arrived some 30 years ago. Many of them live on the fringes of Israeli society and face the challenges of limited opportunities, unemployment, hopelessness, poverty, and even allegations of forced birth control. As a result, a number of them may have resorted to crime; this makes the average Ethiopian Jew a target for higher levels of random stops, searches, and arrests by the police, which of course serves to worsen discrimination and racism that they experience, creating a vicious cycle.
Israeli authorities need to get it right this time. They must do more than just airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel; they must actively seek to integrate and assimilate them, educating other Israelis to accept and respect their presence so they feel like a welcome segment of Israeli society.