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Israel ready to take Ethiopia's last Jews

Israel said Thursday it would start moving the last remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel next week, completing the resettlement of a community that traces its roots to the bible’s King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.
/ Source: Reuters

Israel said Thursday it would start moving the last remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel next week, completing the resettlement of a community that traces its roots to the bible’s King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.

But the Ethiopian government said it would not permit the departures this time to take the form of the mass airlifts of the Ethiopian Jews, or Falasha Mura, staged by Israel during times of crisis in Ethiopia in 1984 and 1991.

“We would like to bring all Falashas to Israel beginning next week. We believe they should live in Israel,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters.

Escape from poverty
There are at least 18,000 Jews in Ethiopia, most of whom are thought to be keen to emigrate to Israel to escape poverty.

Shalom toured the northern region of Gondar Wednesday, the home region of the Ethiopian Jews, and held talks with members of the community.

Many of Ethiopia’s Jews were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th century and now wish to assert their Jewishness and emigrate to Israel. In Ethiopia they live primarily in poor villages where they are subsistence farmers, with a close-knit social structure and family life.

An estimated 80,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. About 8,000 were airlifted to Israel in 1984, fleeing hunger and political turmoil, and some 15,000 were flown to Israel in 1991 at the end of Ethiopia’s civil war.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, speaking alongside Shalom, said that while Ethiopian Jews had the right to go anywhere in the world, the Ethiopian government would not want the departures this time to take the form of a mass exodus.

“The Ethiopian government has no objection for the Ethiopian Jews to travel to Israel,” Seyoum said. “(But) in today’s Ethiopia, there is no need for an organized intervention as in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Few recent emigrations
Since 1991, few Ethiopian Jews have left the country except relatives of those who have already emigrated.

In February 2003 Ethiopia blocked a plan by Israel to move the Falasha Mura to Israel, arguing that a mass migration was unnecessary when everyone was free to leave Ethiopia in the normal way.

Shalom said Israel hoped to strengthen its historical ties with Ethiopia, which exports Arabica coffee and leather products, through economic and trade cooperation.

He said some 20 Israeli business community leaders accompanying him on the trip were seeking to invest in the field of telecommunications and agriculture.

Trade between the two countries is currently skewed in favor of Ethiopia, which exported goods worth $15 million to Israel in 2003, versus imports of $9.6 million from Israel.