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Ethiopian Jewry: The Kwara Jews

by Mitchell Bard

An estimated 6,000 Ethiopian Jews living in the remote Kwara region near the border of the Sudan never made the trek to the refugee camps of the Sudan or joined the exodus to Addis Ababa. Since rebels controlled the area in 1991, they were unable to reach Addis in time for Operation Solomon. As a result, they were left behind. A year after Operation Solomon, about 3,500 Jews from Upper Kwara managed to immigrate, but approximately 2,500 in Lower Kwara remained stranded.

Few people knew of the existence of the Kwara Jews until 1998. When their plight became known, activists called on Israel to expeditiously arrange for their immigration. One obstacle was the reluctance of the Kwara Jews to move to areas of Ethiopia, such as Gondar, where relief organizations were helping the Falash Mura. One reason for their hesitation was the difficulty; traveling north to Gondar, for example, was a dangerous 200 mile journey. The Kwara Jews were also afraid that if they went to the camps set up for the Falash Mura they would be identified with that controversial population and prevented from going to Israel.

The Jewish Agency brought about 500 Kwara Jews to Israel in the first half of 1999, but the pace was too slow for activists who accused the Israelis of dragging their feet. A representative of the Interior Ministry was supposed to expedite the immigration process by conducting interviews and issuing visas, but the Ministry claimed in May 1999 that its representatives were unable to reach the region because of the fighting with the Eritreans. The advocates countered that the fighting was nowhere near where the Jews lived.

In June, the Jewish Agency announced that it was making the Kwara Jews a priority and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon suggested mounting an airlift. Sharon's idea were quickly rejected because of a concern with upsetting the Ethiopians, who were sensitive to creating the impression that conditions in their country were so bad people had to be rescued from it. The Ethiopians did indicate they were not opposed to moving the Jews out quietly on regularly scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flights.

Though the number of Jews was small, the plan was to bring them all to Israel over a period of 40 weeks with one flight a week. The Jewish Agency began busing Jews from Kwara to Addis to wait for flights to Israel in June 1999. This leisurely pace became more problematic as the number of Jews dying while waiting in Gondar increased and the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea intensified. The Israeli Ministry of Interior dispatched more agents to Ethiopia and began to accelerate the processing of the remaining Jews.

On July 29, 1999, 91 Jews from the Kwara region of Ethiopia arrived in the initial operation to rescue the remnants of that community. In 37 days, the Jewish Agency brought 1,388 Jews to Israel on 10 flights from Addis Ababa. The few hundred Jews remaining in the remote Gondar region will be brought over in the fall, at the end of the rainy season. The operation was kept secret to avoid leaks to the press, which might have embarrassed the Ethiopian government and provoked them to stop it.

Though Israeli officials wanted to get credit for their actions, they decided to keep the operation quiet for fear of repeating the mistakes of the past and having publicity provoke the Ethiopians to shut it down. The Jerusalem Post, which subsequently detailed the mission, agreed to withhold information so as not to jeopardize the operation.

After Israel had accepted most of the Kwara Jews, about 170 stayed behind because the Israeli government had insisted they abandon their non-Jewish spouses. Though most of the couples had children, the authorities claimed the marriages were shams undertaken for the purpose of helping gentiles reach Israel. In some cases, Jewish women were offered as brides to gentiles in exchange for money needed by starving relatives, in others they were taken by force. The Kwara Jews sometimes must choose between going to Israel and leaving a spouse or a child behind.

Sources: The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ); Israeli Government Press Office, (July 30, 1999)