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Last Flight Of Ethiopia-To-Israel Jewish Migration Program

Posted: September 1, 2013

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After nearly 30 years, the program that brought thousands of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel has come to an end.

A boy waves the flag of his new homeland on the last flight of organized, large-scale emigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

A boy waves the flag of his new homeland on the last flight of organized, large-scale emigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Moshik Brin

Natan Sharansky, chairman of The Jewish Agency, and Sofa Landver, Israel's Minister of Immigrant Absorption, arriving in Israel with the final large group of Ethiopian Jews to be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of The Jewish Agency, and Sofa Landver, Israel's Minister of Immigrant Absorption, arriving in Israel with the final large group of Ethiopian Jews to be allowed to immigrate to Israel. Moshik Brin

A newly immigrated Ethiopian Jewish girl holds flowers and a flag as she attends a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 29, 2012. The Israeli government's program to bring Jews from Ethiopia officially ended this week.

A newly immigrated Ethiopian Jewish girl holds flowers and a flag as she attends a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 29, 2012. The Israeli government's program to bring Jews from Ethiopia officially ended this week. Ariel Schalit

Last Wednesday, two jetliners flew 450 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

They were the last to arrive under an official program designed to bring to Israel all remaining Ethiopian Jews who are eligible for citizenship.

At the Tel Aviv airport just before the planes landed, everyone seemed excited. Relatives of people arriving from Ethiopia cheered when the plane doors opened.

Achenef Chekole arrived with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Family and friends who had already immigrated to Israel greeted them with hugs.

Israel has an entire government department in charge of absorbing immigrants. Its minister, Sofa Landver, welcomed the newcomers. "After thousands of years of prayers and hopes, you are here at home," Landver told the immigrants.

The Jewish origins of these Ethiopians are murky. One theory: They're the offspring of the Jewish King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, a thousand years before Christ.

Another theory: They fled Jerusalem during wars with Babylon around 500 B.C.

Whatever the history, Shula Mola grew up in a tiny Ethiopian village keeping Shabbat and hearing the story of Jerusalem. "Not the story of real Jerusalem. It's something like imagination of Jerusalem," Mola says. "Jerusalem with the temple. Jerusalem of people who were close to God. It was very concrete for me."

Her journey to Jerusalem started on foot across the desert from Ethiopia into Sudan, with dozens of other Ethiopian Jews. Twelve years old, she survived bandits, hunger and miles without shoes. Shula was flown from Sudan to Israel in 1984. After imagining the triumph of arrival for so long, she was surprised that most Israelis at the airport didn't seem to notice.

"They didn't give us hug, they didn't give us kiss. I mean, it's big deal. We are here!"

Secret flights from Sudan brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel that year in the first mass immigration operation. The U.S. helped lay the groundwork with aid to Sudan.

Nate Shapiro had gotten involved in the effort even earlier. A Chicago businessman, he headed the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.

"We first flew, I think, four or five out to Frankfurt from Khartoum; then we flew 14 out; then we flew two out. We found out there were thousands of people leaving Sudan, moving into the European workforce at the time. We looked into why that was happening, and it turned out they were buying passports. So we bought 500 passports that were forged," Shapiro says, laughing.

Shapiro calls it a time of real innovation. In the early '90s, Israel paid the then-dictator of Ethiopia $35 million to let 14,000 Jews go. Much of the money came from the U.S. Jewish community.

That operation brought most of the Ethiopians who had continually practiced Judaism to Israel. But it left behind thousands of Ethiopians with Jewish roots, but who had converted to Christianity.

Whether to let them immigrate to Israel sparked a huge debate.

"Some of the Israelis said that they're not Jews anymore," recalls Yehuda Sharf, who directs immigration services for The Jewish Agency, whose mission is to bring Jews from anywhere to Israel. "There was anti-Semitism also in Ethiopia. And some of the Jews, they converted themselves to Christianity to get a more comfortable life in Ethiopia."

In Israel, rabbis disagreed on whether these converts counted as Jews. The Israeli government made different decisions and decrees over the years. In the end, a complicated vetting process was approved, and a decision made to wrap up the program.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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