ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Israel's Justice minister vowed to help Ethiopia's Jews immigrate to Israel as soon as possible during a rare visit to Ethiopia.
Ayelet Shaked visited the synagogue in Addis Ababa on Sunday.
"These programs that will eventually reunite Ethiopian Jews with their families in Israel are not generally easy," said Shaked to the group gathered in the synagogue.
"But I will try everything within my power to work with relevant offices to make this happen in the shortest time possible," she said.
Shaked, on what is reported to be her first official visit to Africa, said she came to find out more about the situation of Ethiopia's estimated 8,000 remaining Jews.
Members of the Ethiopian Jews who attended the meeting told her that they want to move to Israel, where many family members moved years ago. They said they want "aliya," the Hebrew term for the immigration of Jews in other parts of the world to Israel.
"We know aliyah for Jews that are descendants in other countries happened so swiftly that sometimes even their dogs were also included as they moved to Israel. Are we less important than these dogs?" asked Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopia's Jews in Addis Ababa.
In an emotional speech, Sidisto reaffirmed that members of Ethiopia's Jewish population plan to stage a mass hunger strike should Israel fail to reunite them with their families soon.
"We are unhappy here. We have had enough here. If our situation is not resolved in a very short time, we will hold a momentous mass hunger strike that will help us present our voice to Israel and the world," he said.
The Ethiopian Jews met with Shaked in the small hall decorated with Israeli flags and scriptures. Some said they have been separated for decades from close family members who moved to Israel.
Tigabu Worku, one of the synagogue's most active members, read a letter to Shaked in which he complained that he has been separated from his family for years.
"I have been torn from my younger sisters Leah and Sarah for 18 years," said Tigabu. "Eighteen years I have missed them. Eighteen years I have waited to see their faces that I no longer remember."
Ethiopia's Falashmuras are believed to be descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel. Ethiopia's Jewish people mainly live in the Amhara and Tigray provinces.
Thousands of Falashmuras moved to Israel following the Law of Return in April 1975 and most of those who remain in Ethiopia have been separated for well over a decards from family members who moved to Israel.
About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of over 8 million. Their assimilation hasn't been smooth, with many arriving without a modern education and then falling into unemployment and poverty.
Although many of those remaining in Ethiopia are practicing Jews, Israel doesn't consider them Jewish, meaning they are not automatically eligible to immigrate under its "law of return," which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. Instead, the government must OK their arrival.
Ethiopian community members have been permitted to immigrate over the last two decades in limited bursts that have left hundreds of families torn apart.
The Israeli government did not approve the funding for the movement of the Ethiopians in its new budget but said a special ministerial committee would to discuss the issue. A date for that meeting had not been announced.