Gathering the Exiles: Israel Welcomes Ethiopian Jews

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BEN GURION AIRPORT -- The final flights of an operation bringing Jewish people, whose ancestors date to biblical times, landed in Israel recently.

It's one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, reaching back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

"Today we are witnessing history taking place -- the return of the last remaining remnants of Jewish Ethiopians to their Jewish homeland," Greg Masel, director general of Keren Hayesod, told CBN News.

The new immigrants arrived in Israel courtesy of Operation Dove's Wings. It's the final in a series of organized mass immigrations from Ethiopia that's spanned three decades.

"It's really closing a kind of a circle -- 30 years of operation after operation, of wonderful aliyah [immigration to Israel under the Law of Return] that [brought] Ethiopians to Israel. It's awesome," MK Pnina Tamano-Shata told CBN News.

Tamano-Shata is the first Ethiopian-born woman to become a member of the Israeli parliament. She arrived in Israel on Operation Shlomo (Solomon) in 1991.

"If I remember Operation Shlomo -- in 36 hours, 14,000 people," she recalled.

"The State of Israel does many wonderful things, and things very, very big because I immigrated at age three. And this time I returned as a Knesset member, a parliament member. This is a big pride," she said smiling.

Since 1948, the Jewish Agency, responsible for immigration, has helped more than 90,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel. Keren Hayesold has raised much of the funds.

"One of the basic missions of the State of Israel is to gather the exiles, the Jewish exiles here in Israel," said Yohanna Arbib Perugia, chairman of the World Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod.

Known as Falash Mura or Beta Israel, many Ethiopian Jews adopted Christian practices over the years or assimilated into Ethiopian society. Israel, therefore, had to determine whether those applying for citizenship were really eligible to come to the land under the Law of Return.

"They're happiest and most grateful because they recognize that Israel is the only country in the history of the world to bring in blacks, not to be slaves, but to be brothers…and that's what they are. They're brothers, they're family," Rabbi Ari Abramowitz, director of Friends of Israel at Keren Hayesod, told CBN News.

For the past three years, the Jewish Agency ran a community center in Gondar, Ethiopia, which provided social and welfare services, plus Hebrew language courses and Jewish studies to prepare the returnees for their homecoming.

"They have a wonderful history, a rich culture, but they grew up in villages," Masel explained. "They grew up removed from 20th century, Western civilization, as we know it."

"We have Jews that have been separated for 2,000 years," Abramowitz said. "Imagine a family reunion after a 2,000-year summer camp! We come back with all the different culture and values and perspectives, and we're in this little land surrounded by enemies who want to wipe us out."

Though these last two flights mark the end of mass immigration from Ethiopia, the Jewish Agency will still help those eligible to immigrate.

And Abramowitz said there's more work to be done.

"There's plenty of Jews around the world who we have to still bring back," he said. "There's a lot more work to do."

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