WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
Last Wednesday, two jetliners flew 450 Ethiopians to Israel, to relocate. Some historians theorize that they are descendents of the lost Dawn Tribe of Israel. The new immigrants are Falash Mura, Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity under pressure, in the early 19th century.
As NPR's Emily Harris reports, officials say this group will be the last in a nearly 40-year-long effort to bring eligible Ethiopian Jews to Israel, to become citizens. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We should have said nearly 30-year-long effort.]
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: At the Tel Aviv airport just before the planes landed, everyone seemed excited. Relatives of people arriving from Ethiopia cheered when the plane doors opened.
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HARRIS: Achenef Chekole arrived with his wife, two sons and two daughters. Family and friends who had already immigrated to Israel greeted them with hugs. Chekole was delighted.
ACHENEF CHEKOLE: (Through translator) I'm happy about coming here to this country and seeing all of my family.
HARRIS: Israel has a whole government department in charge of absorbing immigrants. Its minister, Sofa Landver, welcomed the newcomers.
SOFA LANDVER: (Through translator) After thousands of years of prayers and hopes, you are here at home.
HARRIS: The Jewish origins of these Ethiopians are murky. One theory: They're the offspring of the Jewish King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, a thousand years before Christ. Another theory: They fled Jerusalem during wars with Rome, around 500 B.C. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The wars were with Babylon, not Rome.] Whatever the history, Shula Mola grew up in a tiny Ethiopian village, keeping Shabbat and hearing the story of Jerusalem.
SHULA MOLA: Jerusalem with the temple, Jerusalem of people who - close to God. It was very concrete for me.
HARRIS: Her journey to Jerusalem started on foot, across the desert from Ethiopia into Sudan with dozens of other Ethiopian Jews. Twelve years old, she survived bandits, hunger, and miles without shoes. Shula was flown from Sudan to Israel in 1984. After imagining the triumph of arrival for so long, she was surprised that most Israelis at the airport didn't seem to notice.
MOLA: They didn't give us hug, they didn't give us kiss. I mean, it's big deal; we are here.
HARRIS: Secret flights from Sudan brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel that year, in the first mass-immigration operation. The U.S. helped lay the groundwork with aid to Sudan. Nate Shapiro had gotten involved in the effort even earlier. A Chicago businessman, he headed the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.
NATE SHAPIRO: We first flew, I think, four or five out to Frankfurt from Khartoum. We found out that there were thousands of people leaving Sudan, moving into the European workforce at that time. We looked into why that was happening, and it turns out that they were buying passports. So we bought 500 passports that were forged. (Laughing)
HARRIS: He calls it a time of real innovation. In the early '90s, Israel paid the then-dictator of Ethiopia $35 million to let 14,000 Jews go, in less than two days. Much of the money came from the U.S. Jewish community. That operation brought most of the Ethiopians who had continually practiced Judaism, to Israel. But it left behind thousands of Ethiopians with Jewish roots, but who had converted to Christianity. Whether to let them immigrate to Israel sparked a huge debate.
YEHUDA SHARF: Some of the Israelis said that they're not Jews anymore.
HARRIS: Yehuda Sharf directs immigration services for The Jewish Agency, whose mission is to bring Jews from anywhere, to Israel.
SHARF: It was anti-Semitism, also, in Ethiopia. And some of the Jews, they converted themselves to Christianity to get more comfortable life in Ethiopia.
HARRIS: In Israel, rabbis disagreed on whether these converts counted as Jews. The Israeli government made different decisions and decrees over the years. In the end, a complicated vetting process was approved, and a decision made to wrap up the program. While people who were denied entry can still appeal on an individual basis, this week's flight was the last official, large-scale migration of Ethiopian Jews.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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