Posted by: Lister | September 2, 2008

Ethiopian Jews

Most Ethiopian Jews come from a region called Gondar, which still uses donkeys for transportation and has no indoor plumbing.

For many years, they’ve been granted permission to emigrate to Israel. But Israel’s welcome is wearing thin:

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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

(via Philistine)

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