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Ethiopians rescued by Israel from Tigray may have no Jewish roots: Report

Secret operation faces backlash as dozens of Ethiopians are accused of misrepresenting ancestry to enter Israel
A member of the Ethiopian Jewish community awaits during the daily food distribution at the building the community in the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, on 27 October, 2020 (AFP)

Dozens of Ethiopians who were brought to Israel in a secret operation may have misrepresented their Jewish roots and exaggerated the level of danger they were in, Israeli media reported.

According to Haaretz, the Immigration and Population Authority has raised “serious doubts” over the Jewish connections of many evacuees in a group of 61 Ethiopians who were brought to Israel from the war-torn Tigray region over the last several months.

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The war between Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian military began more than a year ago, and as the fighting intensified in recent weeks, there have been increasing calls to bring members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community to Israel for safety.

Though the plan to airlift them to Israel was put together during the tenure of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was the cabinet of his successor, Naftali Bennett, that signed off on it, Haaretz reported.

Over the past year, more than 2,000 Ethiopian Jews have been brought to Israel in state-run operations, the newspaper said. Out of these evacuees, 61 people required ministers to sign off on their immigration because “they are not part of the Jewish community but claimed only Jewish roots”.

But the backgrounds of these individuals and the information they had provided to the authorities began to raise suspicions after several of them briefly posted photos online following their arrival in Israel, leading immigration officials to order a more thorough investigation.

“There are serious doubts regarding the petitioners’ relationship to Jewish ethnicity despite their affidavits,” said a report from the Immigration and Population Authority, according to Haaretz.

“Most of the petitioners did not come from a combat area as claimed and were not in life-threatening danger,” the report added, noting that they would not ordinarily have been able to emigrate to Israel.

'We founded this country in order to accept Jews in distress, but when dealing with black Jews there are problems. It suddenly becomes a favour'

- Ori Frednik, head of Jews of Ethiopia

Authorities had only been able to confirm Jewish ancestry in four people from the group, a source told the newspaper.

According to media reports, the investigation found that the list of names compiled for rescue came from a man who emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1996. The group brought over included two people claiming to be his sons, his ex-wife, who is Christian, her husband, their children, and a number of people he worked with in the past.

“There’s a feeling that this was a conspiracy to take advantage of the system,” the investigation concluded.

However, sources told Haaretz that the group would not be sent back to Ethiopia, no matter what the final conclusion is.

Bring them to safety

Activists have called on the government to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

"The interior ministry says that there are about 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia, [and] they are part of the heart and soul of the community in Israel," Ori Frednik, head of Jews of Ethiopia, told Army Radio in an interview on Monday.

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"We have family members waiting there. We founded this country in order to accept Jews in distress, but when dealing with black Jews there are problems. It suddenly becomes a favour," he said. 

Last week Israel issued a travel warning for Ethiopia and recommended that "Israeli citizens residing in Ethiopia end their stay in the country, in the face of civil unrest, disruptions and restrictions on movement and access, communication, product availability and possibly even flights."

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is pushing to bring 500,000 Jews from the US, South America and France over the next decade to settle in the country.

According to data released in October by Israel's immigration ministry and the Jewish Agency, Jewish immigration to the country has increased 31 percent in 2021.

The data included 1,589 immigrants from Ethiopia that arrived in Israel as part of a government initiative to bring members of the African nation's Jewish community to the country.

It also revealed a 41 percent increase in immigration from the US, compared to the first nine months of 2020, as well as a 55 percent increase of new immigrants from France.

Bennett's plan to bring half a million Jewish immigrants to the country would have a sizeable effect on the demographics of the country, where most of the Jewish population's origins lie in eastern European countries and the former Soviet Union.

The Jewish and Palestinian Arab populations of Israel and the occupied territories are roughly equal, but the increase in migration of Jews to the country aims to ensure Palestinians do not form a majority in the future.

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