Israel’s open door to Ethiopian Jews closing

Elias Kifle | August 13th, 2008

Ethiopian Israelis hold photos of their relatives still in Ethiopia during a protest against the Israeli governments decision to stop the immigration of Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem. (The Associated Press)

GONDAR, Ethiopia – Sitting in a leaky, flyblown hut, a few dozen Ethiopian villagers are anxiously waiting to be transported to another world.

They have just been given word that their years of waiting are over, and that soon they will make a 2,000-mile journey by land and air with what is probably the last wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.

In doing so, they join generations of Jews who have immigrated to the Promised Land. But they are flying into the teeth of a dilemma that touches the heart of Israel’s founding philosophy.

For people like 48-year-old Abe Damamo, his wife and eight children, wrenching change awaits.

Like most Ethiopians with Jewish roots, they have come from the Gondar region of northern Ethiopia. Their remote village uses donkeys for transportation and has no bathrooms. Damamo has no formal education and speaks no language but his own.

He is moving to an industrialized democracy where he will have to learn Hebrew, master a cell phone, commute to work and find his place in a nation of immigrants from dozens of countries ranging from Argentina to Yemen, Australia to the United States.

But to him, being Jewish is all that matters. “I am so happy to go and live my religion,” he says through a translator.

Not everyone at the Israeli end is happy, however.

In the initial stages of an immigration that began three decades ago, all the Ethiopians immigrating to Israel were recognized outright as Jews. But those now seeking to make the trip are the so-called Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity, the main Ethiopian faith, at the end of the 19th century to escape discrimination.

Initially Israel balked at accepting their claim of Jewishness, but relented after American Jews led a campaign for the Falash Mura.

Some 40,000 moved to Israel, a country of 7 million, joining the 80,000 already there. But their presence has touched off a fierce debate in Israel over where to draw the line.

Ethiopians with any hope, however faint, of eligibility for Israeli citizenship have descended on camps in the city of Gondar, scrambling to prove their Jewishness. Men in prayer shawls sway back and forth in makeshift synagogues and children in skullcaps sit on mud floors learning the Hebrew alphabet and Jewish holidays.

But centuries of intermarriage and a lack of documentation have made it extremely difficult to prove who is a Jew, and the group awaiting their flight to Israel last month were supposed to be among the last, because the Israeli government has decided that the influx must stop.

Those lucky enough to meet the criteria for immigration will have to undergo conversion to Orthodox Judaism after arriving in Israel.

Sixty-six-year-old Tegabie Jember Zegeye’s application was rejected long ago, his links to Judaism deemed too remote. But he has been living with his wife and five children in a Gondar camp for 10 years. He wears a skullcap and attends daily prayers and religion classes.

“When I left my village I didn’t think I would be here for 10 days,” he says, adding that he has close relatives in Israel who he feels are a part of him. “How can you split a man into two halves?”

He says he feels Jewish at heart. But when asked about his previous lifestyle, he replies: “I lived like a Christian, like all the Jews.”

Besides cutting to the heart of the age-old debate over who is a Jew, the dispute between the Israeli government and the American Jewish activists who finance the Gondar camps raises uncomfortable questions about a central tenet of Israel’s founding philosophy.

Israel’s Law of Return guarantees citizenship for any Jew in need, and these days the country is especially concerned about boosting its Jewish population to compete with the Arabs. But the Ethiopians have proved the hardest immigrant group to absorb, and the Falash Mura, some critics feel, is pushing the limits.

Like every other immigrant group, Ethiopian-Israelis have made their mark on the human mosaic of Jewish nationhood giving it top-notch soldiers, funky musicians, world-class athletes and two members of parliament. They also have a powerful backer, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the ruling coalition, which capitalizes on the Ethiopian vote.

But as a whole they are poor, plagued by crime, violence and substance abuse, feeling shut out of a world very different from rural Africa.

The steep learning curve is evident even before they depart for Israel.

Those approved for immigration are taught what a fridge looks like, how to cook on a stovetop, how to flush a toilet. Nurses teach the women to use female hygiene products. The families are introduced to TVs, and are shown videos of life in their new world. They are warned to mind the “magic stairs” – the escalators – at the Addis Ababa airport.

Before leaving, they undergo extensive medical checkups at an Israeli Embassy compound in Addis Ababa, and their African surnames are replaced with Hebrew ones.

Ori Konforti, the Ethiopia representative of the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental agency in charge of incoming Jews, calls the transformation a move from “a land where they live like they did in the Bible, to the actual land of the Bible.”

But despite all the preparations, most Ethiopian immigrants over age 35 go straight onto welfare after reaching Israel, according to the Jewish Agency.

That’s no reason for shutting out the Falash Mura, says Mazor Bahyna, an Ethiopian in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.

“I think Israel has an obligation to prove that it is not a racist state,” he says. “If everyone was blond-haired and had blue eyes, they would bring them.”

The Israeli government, lacking a universally accepted definition of Jewishness, has long welcomed immigrants whose links to Judaism were questionable, many of them among the hundreds of thousands of people who came from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Ethiopian Jews, once popularly known as the Falasha, began arriving in Israel in the 1970s after a revered rabbi ruled that they were descended from the lost biblical tribe of Dan. Traveling by plane, at times clandestinely, or on foot in desert treks in which many died, their exodus held Israel in thrall.

In 1991, Israel flew out nearly 15,000 Jews as rebels charged into Addis Ababa to overthrow its communist regime.

But then the problems began.

As word of the 1991 operation spread, the Falash Mura also sought to leave. Suddenly Israel was confronted with the possibility of multitudes banging on its doors claiming to be Jewish and daring it to turn them away.

At first the Israeli government turned them down, but a coalition of American Jewish organizations took up their cause. They set up camps in Gondar, providing free schools, shelter and heath clinics – and most important, a ticket out of Ethiopia.

“There is a very strong feeling that a danger to a Jewish community should never be ignored again,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, director general of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, the main group advocating Falash Mura immigration. “As far as I’m concerned, they are Jews … they are as much Jews as any other Jew from Ethiopia or New York.”

For the Ethiopians at the center of the controversy, Zionist ideology is secondary to what they see as their most pressing need: reunification with family already in Israel.

Sitotaw Tamir, a 30-year-old father of two, has a gold Star of David dangling from his neck while his wife, like many Ethiopian Christians, has a cross tattooed on her forehead.

Interviewed two days before his departure for Israel, Tamir said he has three sisters and a brother left in Gondar, and “will not feel right” if they don’t join him in Israel.

That’s precisely what Israel fears. “There is no end to reunification,” said the Jewish Agency’s Konforti.

Israel has struggled for years to figure out which Ethiopians should be allowed in. Each time it has attempted to end the immigration by emptying the Gondar camps and airlifting their inhabitants to Israel, thousands more have flooded into the camps, scrambling to prove their Jewishness.

The argument now seems to have come down to numbers: Israel says the last of the Falasha Mura who qualify for immigration arrived in Israel earlier this month, while the American groups say some 8,700 have been left behind.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has upheld the Israeli list, effectively marking an end to the historic chapter.