Jewish American activists are in Ethiopia to escort remnants of one of the oldest communities in the Jewish Diaspora to Israel, organizers said Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in clandestine operations starting more than three decades ago. Jews are granted automatic citizenship in Israel according to its "Law of Return."
Thousands of descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th century, known as the Falash Mura, were left behind. The quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, with backing from American Jewry, has been working to bring the remnants of the community to Israel.
Activists from the American United Jewish Appeal were in Ethiopia this week to prepare a group of 70 Falash Mura for the journey.
"It was moving to see...the excitement on their faces as they prepare to leave for Israel," said Marty Keltz, 48, a doctor from New York who is on the mission with his 17-year-old daughter Sarah.
Keltz spoke from Ethiopia shortly before the group was to board a plane with the Falash Mura.
Ethiopian Jews trace their ancestors to the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan. The community was cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 1,000 years.
About 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of 7 million. Their absorption has been problematic. Suffering from lack of a modern education, many have fallen into unemployment and poverty and have watched their family structures disintegrate. Ethiopian Jews charge veteran Israelis with racism in their treatment.
Some 3,000 Falash Mura are waiting to immigrate, said Micha Feldman, a former Israeli diplomat involved in the immigration of Ethiopian Jews since the 1980s.
Feldman, who is with the American group, said about 250 immigrate to Israel every month. "If it continues at this rate, they will all be in Israel by this time next year," he said.
Because of some doubts about their Jewishness according to strict religious laws, the Falash Mura must undergo ritual conversions when they arrive.