THE BETA ISRAEL
In Ethiopia, there are over nine thousand Jews. They speak Hebrew, keep kosher and have relatives living in Israel, though Israel continues to deny their appeals for aliyah — the Jewish birthright to become citizens of Israel. Many among this community abandoned life in the Ethiopian countryside over a decade ago, relocating to the city in hopes of soon moving onto Israel. Despite their devout observance and commitment to Judaism, Israel continues to delay a decision to bring this group, believed to be the last Jews in the world awaiting aliyah. The Beta Israel survive within a temporary, difficult reality in Ethiopia, as Passengers on the road to the Promised Land, though stranded along the way. They largely rely on government assistance and money sent back from relatives in Israel in order to survive, every day hoping they will one day live fully as Jews in Israel.
This final community is made up primarily of the so-called Falash Mura — referring to Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity under intense social and political pressure several generations ago. These families have since returned fully to Judaism. Additionally, there is a strong precedent for Israel welcoming back Jews who have strayed from the Tribe, most notably with the "Marranos" of Spain.
Currently, there are over 135 thousand Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, over 55 thousand of which are members of the Falash Mura community. Although relative to other aliyah communities the Ethiopian Jews have historically needed more assistance in emigrating and assimilating, the Falash Mura are actually the most prepared to enter Israel, due to their sustained commitment to Judaism in the face of hardship and their familial roots already in the country.
In late 2015, the Israeli government finally approved a decision to bring this final group of Ethiopian Jews. Then, four short months later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked it just four months later, citing the lack of an allocated budget. Many within the Jewish community — including MK Avraham Neguise, the only Ethiopian member of the Knesset and major champion for the Ethiopian Jews — believe this to be a poor excuse. Some claim it’s racist. Never before has Israel claimed it does not have the money to complete an aliyah. However, we must also consider that Israel has a great, progressive history with immigration, and is the first country in the world to willingly bring in Africans as full citizens — beginning with the dramatic Operation Solomon in 1984 in which thousands of Jews walked for days to Sudan before being secretly airlifted to Israel. These are the lengths to which Israel showed the world — and the diaspora — that it was willing to go to in order to bring Jews home.
In 2013, David Elcott, an NYU professor and longtime Jewish activist, and with his wife Shira Milgrom, a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains were in Gondar, Ethiopia, witnessing what Israel had billed as the final aliyah of the Ethiopian Jews. David turned to a young man sitting next to him in the synagogue to ask when he was going to Israel. The man responded simply, in Hebrew, that he was not on the list. As it turns out, several thousand Jews from the community were not going. This young man was Demoz, now 24 years old.
Last summer, David and Shira brought Demoz and his friend Gezi to the U.S. as part of a campaign, the goal to meet with Jewish leaders across the country and tell their story in hopes of drumming up American support for the final Ethiopian aliyah.
Out of Ethiopia for the first times in their life, Demoz and Gezi travel around the US — to NY, DC and LA — telling their story, and that of their families and community. They receive audiences with Jewish Federations, nonprofit organizations, journalists, rabbis and others. Responses are mostly empathetic responses as listeners are impressed by their Hebrew, devout commitment to Israel and Zionism. A petition advocating for their aliyah gains signature, though real movement remains difficult and muddled.
Many organizations are reticent to go against Israel's stance, that this community is not Jewish and therefore not eligible under the Law of Return. The campaign kicks into a new gear after Jane Eisner, the editor in chief of The Forward newspaper, writes a story about Demoz, Gezi and their trip. The title of the article: “For Israel, It’s No Jew Left Behind — Unless You’re Ethiopian.”
It proves extremely difficult for Demoz and Gezi to see the needle moving slightly in a large campaign, which makes their personal journey all the more exhausting. They question the point of some of these meetings, visits and days spent almost exclusively as tourists. Throughout the trip, Demoz and Gezi deal with a dynamic struggle — they are on a mission representing a group of people desperately relying on that, and that responsibility steadily builds. Yet they are also on an unbelievable trip, in a country they never dreamed they’d visit. As Gezi says, “we aren’t here to have fun.” Although this isn’t true for the whole journey — the pair has a blast during stays at Jewish summer camps, visiting museums in DC, Time Square in NYC and the beach in Malibu — it is a function of the responsibility they feel to achieve progress. Patience is no longer simply a virtue when you’ve been waiting for over a decade; when your every passing day in Ethiopia is a day missed, an opportunity missed, with family and brethren in Israel.
Their journey reaches its climax when violence breaks out back in Gondar, due to a regional dispute over two ethnic groups. Businesses are burned, internet and phone reception go out and Demoz and Gezi are unable to reach their families, who remain stuck in their humble homes out of fear. When the first Jew dies as a result of the conflict, the campaign escalates even more — it’s not only about aliyah, but now also about saving and protecting Jewish lives.
Demoz and Gezi ultimately leave, after another emotional goodbye, leaving David disillusioned with the lack of investment and movement from many his longtime colleagues and fellow Jews. With regard to Israel’s attempt to consider letting in a few thousand over the next several years, Demoz and Gezi aren’t buying it — “they are toying with us still.” The work continues.
CALL TO ACTION
We believe that the lack of movement by Israel on this issue is not entirely for budgetary reasons, as is officially stated. A documentary film can expand our understanding of shared human experience to foster a more informed, compassionate and connected world. In this case, it can also help change the narrative and lead to real change, where the campaign plateaued. THE PASSENGERS has the ability to bring this issue to the forefront of Israel policy and agendas of Jews in America and around the world.
It is the duty of Jews around the world to help their fellow diaspora in need. It is our duty to support our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. There are only nine thousand left, and we can help ensure that Israel finishes the job of the Ethiopian aliyah.
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