Representatives for thousands of Ethiopian Jews announced Wednesday they will stage a mass hunger strike if Israel eliminates funding to allow them to join their families in Israel.
Hundreds met at a synagogue in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to express concern that Israel’s proposed budget removes the funding to help them immigrate to reunite with relatives. Many held photos of their loved ones.
Most of the nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in the East African nation are said to have family members already in Israel. Some told The Associated Press they have been separated for well over a decade.
Activists say Israel’s government in 2015 pledged to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In 1991 with Ethiopia in civil war, Israel carried out the dramatic Operation Solomon, successfully airlifting out some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in less than two days.
“All of us here in Ethiopia are in a foreign land and suffering from acute poverty and hunger,” said Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa. “Most of our family members are in Israel. Several of our brothers and sisters who took dangerous routes to meet their relatives in Israel have died during their journey.”
He said Addis Ababa’s community of Ethiopian Jews, which numbers around 800 households, will hold a hunger strike if the Israeli government doesn’t hear their plea.
While Israeli law allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate, the trouble here centers on the ancestors of the community remaining in Ethiopia, said Alisa Bodner, a spokeswoman for the group Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. The ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity about a century ago, while their descendants have returned to a “fully Jewish lifestyle.”
The origin of the Ethiopian Jews is unclear but a popular legend says they descended from the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
In a letter addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa said they want to immediately and without any preconditions go to Israel and join family members.
“We will never lose hope in going to Israel because we are winner people,” the letter says. “Dear Mr. Prime Minister, we want you to make our wish a reality. We ask you this in the name of Our God, Israel’s God.”