‘Wings of the Dove’ brings Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel

Gondar, Ethiopia – “I have waited for this happy moment for eight years,” says Fasil Yehunye as he helps his family pack their meager belongings in their crowded one-room abode just prior to emigrating from Gondar, Ethiopia, to Israel.

Yehunye was one of 237 Jews who landed Monday morning in Tel Aviv on a special charter flight from Addis Ababa, part of an operation called “Wings of the Dove,” billed as finally bringing to Israel the very last remnant of the Jews in Ethiopia.

This was the largest single group of immigrants to land in Israel in the last two years, following a government decision in November 2010 to authorize the aliya of the almost 8,000 Jews left in the African country.

The Jewish Agency was tasked with carrying out the government’s decree and senior Jewish Agency official Asher Fentahun Seyum was sent in to do the job. Seyum went to work with energy and skill and in less than two years set up an operation that brought 6,000 Gondar Jews to Israel.

Seyum pledges to “close shop” when the remaining 1,800 left in Gondar are settled in Israel – within a year.

The vexed question of what to do with thousands of others who consider themselves Jews but were not on the government list, remains unanswered.

This reporter, who was brought to Gondar to meet some of the olim as they prepared to leave Ethiopia, was dismayed at their appalling living conditions.

Yehunye, 38; his wife, Femiz; and their five children were housed in a single room in a mud hut. Cooking was done outside on open wood fires and there was no evidence of sanitary facilities.

Their son Getaheh, 17, told me that the family had left their village eight years before and eked out a meager existence, helped by food handouts from the Jewish Agency, Keren Yedidut and other charities.

However, their educational and religious needs were supported by a school and community center set up by the Jewish Agency. The potential immigrants had to make their own accommodation arrangements, as there was no central housing facility.

The contrast between the demeanor and outward appearance of the immigrants in their Gondar hovels and on their arrival in Israel was striking. In Gondar, their clothing was poor and often torn; some went barefoot or else wore cheap plastic footwear. In readiness for their move to Israel, they dressed themselves in Shabbat finery and they seemed more cheerful, if a little apprehensive at the sounds and sights of modern Israel, compared to decrepit Gondar.

Moshe Bahta, director of the Ibim absorption center where the new immigrants will be housed for the next two years, noted that their homes were going to be much more comfortable than in Gondar, with several rooms for each family and health, educational and social facilities on hand.

Ibim is close to Sderot and well within the range of rockets and mortars from Gaza. However, Bahta said none of the immigrants were fazed when he explained the safety procedures to be followed when “Color Red” announcements and sirens warn of an impending rocket attack.