When I read heart-rending accounts of the family separations taking place in the United States, I am appalled. While there are significant differences — both in ideologies and politics — among the various Jewish organizations and institutions in our country, there has been a real consensus decrying the separation of families. I am proud that 26 Jewish organizations recently agreed on a joint letter condemning the practice of these family separations. [Editor’s Note: The Orthodox Union added its name to the letter after it was criticized for meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was carrying out the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy; the policy was ended by executive order on June 20.] Although there are many who believe that there may be special instances when the deportation of illegal immigrants may be called for, it is hard to imagine many circumstances that would necessitate the forceful separation of children from their parents.
I am hopeful that the outspoken response of the American Jewish community will make a difference in the way human beings are treated. The organizational statements are unequivocal. I am also grateful that there are hundreds of people who are taking action by visiting the separated families as they are being detained. Others are writing letters and lobbying government officials. What they are doing helps to sanctify God’s name. Their actions are to be applauded.
At this moment, there is a community of Jews that is also facing family separation. There are nearly 145,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin living in Israel. They came to Israel legally over the recent decades. But large segments of many families were not authorized to immigrate. Thus, in order to become Israeli citizens, many were compelled to leave their families in Gondar and Addis Ababa. They expected that the rest of their family members would follow shortly. But that has not yet happened. There are approximately 8,200 Jews stranded in Ethiopia living in deplorable conditions and facing daily malnutrition.
According to Israel’s interior ministry, 783 of those Jews in Ethiopia have children living in Israel, 2,191 have parents who are in Israel, and 2,436 have siblings living in Israel. These family separations are extraordinarily painful. Visiting Jewish families in their one-room huts in Ethiopia, one encounters children with pictures of their parents they may not have seen for a decade or more. They cry tears, but few from Israel appear to care. I have met many parents over the years who have not been able share the lives of their children because the children are in Israel and the parents are barred from making aliyah. They groan, but few people seem to notice. The Knesset has approved the aliyah for most of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia. But the Israeli government refuses to fund their absorption in the budget, and thus it will not authorize their immigration. And so, the Ethiopian Jews stay and impatiently wait. Although this is problematic and inappropriate from many points of view, from the perspective of “family separation” it is unconscionable.
As Jews, we know the trauma caused by family separation, which has, unfortunately, been a part of our historic narrative. We are rightly trying to influence the U.S. government to end its practices that tear families asunder. As Jews, we must also demand that the Israeli government do what is necessary to finally complete the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews and reunite families. Israel may not be able to do it alone. She may require our support to enact those values of compassion and justice. But, just as Jews must be partners with the American government in ending family separation, we dare not shirk our responsibility to work with Israel toward the same goal.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein is president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.