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Falashas Eligible for Israeli Citizenship Under Law of Return

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An inter-ministerial committee of experts has recognized the Falashas–the Black Jews of Ethiopia–as eligible for Israeli citizenship and other rights under the “Law of Return.” The committee, under chairmanship of Justice Ministry Director-General Zvi Terlo, reached its conclusion early last month, but it was only reported last Thursday night by radio and television.

The decision was immediately criticized by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren who maintained the Jewishness of the Falashas ought to be a strictly halachic issue decided by halachic experts only. The committee was reportedly guided on the halacha by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who has for many years maintained that the Falashas are Jews under halacha.

Rabbi Yosef told the JTA some time ago that he relied on Jewish travelers and rabbinic expert of the late Middle Ages who reported on the Falashas and asserted that they were descendants of the tribe of Dan. Their forebears had apparently found their way to Ethiopia during or immediately after the First Temple period. Rabbi Yosef said he personally had checked into their religious practices and found that they paralleled accepted Jewish practices to a very large extent.

Rabbi Yosef, though, has generally insisted that Falashas settling in Israel “re-convert” to Judaism–as a formal measure. He noted that their marriage and divorce laws and practices are substantially different from those in force among world Jewry. Rabbi Goren insists on a full-fledged conversion, since he doubts whether the Falashas are in fact authentic Jews under halacha.

There are said to be several hundred Falashas living in Israel at present. Their leaders–and the widely acknowledged Falasha leader in Ethiopia, Yona Bogala–believe many more would willingly come if they were encouraged by the Jewish Agency and treated as Jewish immigrants once they arrived here.

COMPLICATED BY SITUATION IN ETHIOPIA

The Falasha issue has always been complicated by their delicate political situation in Ethiopia. The ex-Emperor Haile Selassie was always loath to allow them to leave in large numbers, and during the long period of warm Israel-Ethiopia relations Jerusalem sought not to offend him by encouraging a large Falasha emigration.

During the last years of his tenure, the Falashas’ position steadily grew worse, and Jewish pressure groups abroad lobbied with the Israeli authorities on the Falashas’ behalf. With Rabbi Yosef’s election as Chief Rabbi, the pro-Falasha lobby redoubled its efforts. The political upheaval in Ethiopia and that country’s earlier break with Israel created a more propitious set of circumstances, too.

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