BEN GURION AIRPORT -- Two planeloads carrying 450 Ethiopian immigrants stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion's Terminal 1 Wednesday to a welcome as warm as the Tel Aviv afternoon on which they came.
On hand to welcome the new arrivals were several hundred Ethiopian Israelis, many waiting to embrace family members, joined by government ministers, members of Knesset and heads of agencies that have sponsored and facilitated the Falash Mura's aliyah.
"Out of all the Jews being ingathered from the four corners of the world, it's my belief that Ethiopian Jewry is the happiest and most grateful," Rabbi Ari Abromowitz, director of Friends of Israel at Keren Hayesod, one of the primary organizations responsible for this historic operation, told CBN News.
"I believe it is because they realize that Israel is the only country in the history of the world to proactively bring in blacks, not to be slaves, but to be brothers. And that is exactly what they are -- brothers. And this is a family reunion."
Those Left Behind
The group represents the final leg of Operation Dove's Wings, initiated in 2010 to bring the remaining Falash Mura to Israel. Wednesday's arrivals brought the total for this operation to 7,500, but nearly 500 already on the government's listing -- some with family members in Israel -- were left behind.
That number falls short of an estimated 12,000 Falash Mura, most living in the city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia, whose eligibility for immigration was not approved by Israel's Interior Ministry.
While the celebration was going on at the airport, several hundred Ethiopian Israelis demonstrated in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence, protesting those who were excluded as well as the closure of the Jewish Agency's synagogue and school in Gondar.
Still, the agency says it will continue to facilitate the return "of all Ethiopian citizens deemed eligible for aliyah by Israel's Interior Ministry."
Ethiopia's 'Falash Mura'
Falash Mura is the name given to descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were converted by Christian missionaries about 100 years ago. While many resisted the missionaries' attempts, even those who converted retained strong ties to their Jewish roots and with it the longing to return to the land of their forefathers.
No one understands the longing for Israel more than Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who suffered for years at the hands of the Soviets before being allowed to immigrate.
"The Jewish community of Ethiopia is one of the oldest in the world, with roots reaching back to the times of King Solomon and Queen Sheba," Sharansky said at the welcoming ceremony. "For thousands of years this community has been yearning for Zion. By completing the journey of Operation Dove's Wings, we close the circle on a journey that began 3,000 years ago."
Also greeting the new arrivals were freshman MKs Shimon Solomon and Pnina Tamnu-Shata, both Ethiopian Israelis embodying the potential for success in the Jewish state.
A beaming Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said she was "proud to take part in this historic event."
"I wish to thank all our partners and promise that the government of Israel will do everything in its power to resettle these new immigrants in the best way possible," she said.
'The Work's Not Over'
Housing Minister Uri Ariel promised to do his part to help them succeed in their new home.
"There is no other country in the world like Israel when it comes to its desire to bring its people home," Ariel said. "But the work is not over. Now we have to make sure these new immigrants integrate into Israeli society, learning from the mistakes that were made in the past and with a greater sensitivity to this thousands-year old culture."