Ethiopian Jews threaten mass hunger strike over Israel move

Ethiopian Jews threaten mass hunger strike over Israel move
Thousands of Ethiopian Jews prevented from reuniting with their families in Israel due to perceived racist policy-making are threatening to go on hunger strike.
4 min read
01 March, 2018
Thousands gathered in an Addis Ababa synagogue to protest Israeli budget cuts [Getty]
In an emotional gathering, representatives for thousands of Ethiopian Jews announced on Wednesday they will stage a mass hunger strike if Israel eliminates funding to allow them to join their families in the country.

Hundreds met at a synagogue in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to express concern that Israel's proposed budget removes the funding to help them to reunite with relatives in the Jewish state. Many held photos of their loved ones.

Most of the approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in the East African nation are thought to have family members already in Israel, many of whom have been separated for well over a decade.

During Ethipia's destructive civil war in the early nineties, Israel carried out the dramatic Operation Solomon, which saw some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews airlifted out of the country in less than two days in 1991.

Israel's government in 2015 pledged to bring in the remaining Ethiopian Jews, with 1,300 Ethiopians brought in last year, but the effort is now on hold.

"All of us here in Ethiopia are in a foreign land and suffering from acute poverty and hunger," said Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa. "We have had enough here. What have we done wrong to suffer this much?" he added, bursting into tears and prompting others to cry out.

He said Addis Ababa's community of Ethiopian Jews, which numbers around 800 households, will hold a hunger strike if the Israeli government doesn't hear their plea.

Avraham Neguise, a lawmaker who chairs the Israeli parliament's Absorption and Diaspora Committee, said the budget will be voted on in the coming weeks. He accused the government of discrimination, saying that it privileges the immigration of other diaspora communities into the country.

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

"You cannot find any other communities where the parent is 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.

"While Israeli law allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate, the issue in this case revolves around the community's ancestors," said Alisa Bodner, a spokeswoman for the group Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah.

The ancestors of Ethiopia's Jews were forced to convert to Christianity about a century ago, while their descendants have returned to a "fully Jewish lifestyle," she told The Associated Press.

Wednesday's gathering was described as a solidarity event. Ethiopians currently are prohibited from holding protests under the country's latest state of emergency, imposed this month after the most severe anti-government demonstrations in a quarter-century.

Ethiopian Jews began anti-government protests in 2015
against race discrimination and police brutality in
Israel [Getty]

Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment on the issue of the Ethiopian Jews. Most of the community lives in the northern Amhara region, one of the areas that has experienced the sometimes deadly anti-government protests that began in November 2015 with demands for greater freedoms.

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 term which translates into "strangers" or "migrants."

Chekol Alemayehu, who said he has been waiting desperately to go to Israel and meet his relatives, said he completed all the immigration papers but was turned back at the airport more than a decade ago. "I've no idea why. My daughter died in Israel a few months ago. And I've been suffering since," he said.

In a letter addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa said they want to immediately and without any preconditions go to Israel and join family members.

"We will never lose hope in going to Israel because we are winner people," 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."

Netanyahu's office declined to comment.

Ethiopian Jews have long been known to have suffered extensive discrimination inside Israel. Racist policies such as forcing Ethiopian women to be injected with contraceptives, destroying blood donated by Ethiopians, and brutal police practices used against the community, have been made public over recent years.

The Israeli leader came under particular fire for racist anti-black legislation after announcing its intention to deport African migrants in the country. In January, it was reported that in the past five years, over a third of the African refugee community has been expelled from Israel.