Natan Sharansky described it as a "moving historical moment." The head of the Jewish Agency for Israel -- the body tasked with overseeing immigration -- on Wednesday accompanied the last group of Ethiopian Jews on their journey to the Holy Land. Some 450 so-called "Falashas" flew to an airport near Tel Aviv in two chartered flights.
65 years after the establishment of the Israeli nation state, the country has concluded its mass repatriation program for Ethiopian Jews. The arrival of the group means that the religious minority's 3000-year history is finally coming full circle, said Sharansky, according to the German news agency DPA.
Over the last three decades, about 100,000 Jews have been repatriated from the East African country to Israel. The program began with three operations dubbed "Moses" (1984), "Joshua" (1985) and "Solomon" (1991-1992).
After these were completed, the operation came to a prolonged standstill due to a political altercation about whether the Falash Mura -- who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 18th and 19th century, but maintained their Jewish rituals -- should be entitled to Israeli citizenship.
Although some ultra-Orthodox Rabbis still refuse to recognize the group's status as Jews, the Israeli government organized a further repatriation effort -- dubbed "Operation Dove Wing" -- in November 2010. Last October, the first of a total of 93 chartered flights arrived in the country. Before leaving Ethiopia, the Falah Mura had spent several years in transit camps in the nothern city of Gondar being prepared for Israeli life.
Around 500 protestors gathered in front of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence on Wednesday. Their aim was to expand the repatriation program to include a further 5,000 Ethiopians who hadn't been acknowledged as practicing Jews, and therefore hadn't qualified for Operation Dove Wing. The Israeli government has introduced a rule whereby Ethiopians wanting to return to the Holy Land are only able to do so by applying on an individual basis.
The black minority group often faces discrimination in Israel. In 1996, the country's daily Maariv newspaper revealed that Magen David Adom -- the country's bloodbank service -- had been destroying all blood samples provided by Ethiopian Jews. Last year, the Israeli broadcaster Channel 2 revealed that 120 landlords in the southern town of Kiryat Malakhi had agreed not to rent out or sell their houses and apartments to members of the African minority.
Many Ethiopian migrants live in low income areas and illegal settlements. Human rights organizations have accused the Israeli government of forcibly sterilizing members of the minority group. The authorities have denied the allegations.