t was the closing of a circle. Not just the one that opened 30 years ago, when the first Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel from refugee camps in Sudan in a brazen Israeli-CIA covert operation. But the closing of a deeper, more profound circle: the return to Zion. The journey home.
Amid the tears, the dancing, the laughs and the revelrous overflow of excitement at Ben Gurion airport, history was made Wednesday with the arrival of those deemed to be the last of the eligible Falash Mura — Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries largely due to persecution and economic woes and who maintained a distinct communal identity.
Many Ethiopian-Israelis came to welcome their relatives. Some waited for brothers and sisters; others came to see sons and daughters. The much-awaited arrival of this final group of 450 Falash Mura also symbolized something for the entire community, given that the flight likely marked the end of mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel.
When Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, spoke to the newcomers about their longing for a Jewish homeland, it seemed appropriate, and not in any contrived sort of way. Who better than Sharansky, who sat for years in a cell in a Soviet gulag and dreamed of Jerusalem, to relate to this group that’s also waited more than a dozen years to reach the Promised Land?
“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 to the new Israelis. “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 three thousand years ago.”
Arriving to Israel with the flight from Ethiopia, Sharansky said he saw in the Falash Muras’ eyes a fear that, as the day of their flight approached, something would go wrong, and that maybe Israel would change its mind.
“They [the Falash Mura] waited many years to come to Israel. And I think they were scared that it wouldn’t happen,” he said.
“I remember this feeling myself,” he said, reflecting on his own trip from captivity to freedom in Israel. “I remember that I kept asking myself if it was a dream and if I’d wake up and find myself in prison again… And so it was with them. I could tell they were frightened, and that they too had that feeling that it almost wasn’t going to happen.”
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