OPINION: I was moved to be with 124 Ethiopian olim as they lived their Jewish dream

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OPINION: I was moved to be with 124 Ethiopian olim as they lived their Jewish dream

On a visit to Gondar, Ethiopia, UJIA Chair Louise Jacobs reflects on Israel’s importance as a homeland for global Jewry

Ethiopian Jews learn Hebrew as they await aliyah
Ethiopian Jews learn Hebrew as they await aliyah

One of the great privileges of leading UJIA is that, even in troubled times when the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora seems fraught, I get to see the very best of Jewish peoplehood in action.

I recently flew to Tel Aviv on a chartered flight from Addis Ababa carrying members of the Ethiopian Jewish community to be reunited with their family members in Israel.

It was the climax of a visit to Ethiopia where I joined the leadership of Keren Hayesod, alongside representatives from Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Argentina, Australia and Brazil.

We visited the city of Gondar, where we met the small Jewish community that remains. It was an inspiring, I would go as far as to say life-changing experience.

On our trip we were accompanied by Ethiopian-Israelis and heard their incredible stories of Aliyah. We heard about Operation Solomon – the Israeli endeavour that brought an astonishing 14,325 Ethiopian Jews over the course of 36 hours in 1991 – from those who had been on those flights. We heard from a remarkable man who tragically lost three siblings when they left Ethiopia decades ago, making the perilous journey through Sudan with the dream of reaching Israel.

Louise Jacobs at UJIA Annual Dinner

On the one hand their stories were unique to the experiences of Ethiopian Jews. On the other, however, that yearning for freedom, safety and security in Israel is quintessential to the experience of Jews the world over.

To bear witness to the reunion of families in Israel and the fulfilment of their dreams was an unforgettable honour.

It was also a reminder of the centrality of Israel to providing Jews with a dream of a better life wherever they are from and whatever challenges they face. I see that also with the growing wave of olim arriving in Israel as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I am proud of the work UJIA is undertaking alongside Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency, helping with the absorption of Ukrainian and Russian Jews for whom Israel remains a safe haven from the ravages of war and repression.

To bear witness to the reunion of families in Israel and the fulfilment of their dreams was an unforgettable honour.

That work is vital and the need for it cannot be overstated. The same is true about Ethiopian Jews seeking to make Aliyah and join their families in Israel. In 2020, the Israeli government granted 3000 Ethiopians the right to immigrate to Israel as party of a family reunification programme for those with a brother, sister or parent already living in the country.

As yet, however, just over 1,500 of that 3,000 have arrived. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons including Israeli government legislation, many families remain separated. Some of the olim I travelled with have waited almost a decade to be reunited with loved ones.

We met one family of four in Gondar who were not with us on the flight. They have been waiting patiently for six years to make Aliyah. They recently sold their home and belongings to be ready for the move and are now living in one tiny room.

For those who make the trip, there can be no doubt as to what it means to them.

The father’s sister, wife and in-laws are already in Israel. He hopes that he and the rest of the family can join them in May and I could sense his excitement at the prospect. I believe we should do everything we can to ensure that this Jewish family’s dream is fulfilled.

The Jewish Agency operation in Gondar is remarkable, undertaking brilliant work to help Ethiopian Jews prepare for challenges and opportunities of life in Israel. Yet the future for Ethiopian olim beyond that number of 3000 is uncertain and could be affected by Israeli government legislation. If that was to happen, many whose greatest aspiration is to live as Jews within the Jewish state would remain unfulfilled.

For those who make the trip, however, there can be no doubt as to what it means to them. As our plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport, amid singing and applause, I was moved to be among 124 Ethiopian olim as they lived out their Jewish dream.

It was a reminder both of Israel’s importance as a homeland for global Jewry and of our duties and responsibilities to our fellow Jews the world over. It was, for me, one of the privileges of my life truly to witness what it means to be a Jewish people.

  • Louise Jacobs is Chair of UJIA
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