JERUSALEM (Jul. 16)
Hundreds of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants — men, women and children — marched from absorption centers in Galilee and from others in southern Israel today to the Ben Gurion Airport to protest the demand by the Chief Rabbinate that they undergo ritual immersion, a religious conversion rite.
The Ethiopians, themselves devoutly religious, consider this demeaning and an insulting implication that they are not authentic Jews. Today’s march, the first in a series of planned organized protests, was triggered by the refusal of local rabbinical authorities to issue marriage certificates to several young couples who have not undergone immersion. Earlier this week, Ethiopian immigrants at absorption centers refused to attend their Hebrew classes and some refused to report for work.
Marchers today, carrying their personal belongings, trekked toward Ben Gurion Airport, a symbolic destination they chose to demonstrate disenchantment over their treatment by the Orthodox religious establishment. Between last November and the early part of this year, more than 10,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel by secret airlift from Sudan. The airlift was suspended in January because of premature disclosure.
MARCHERS COLLAPSE AT ROADSIDES
The marchers were thus symbolizing the severe hardships they had to endure in their long trek by foot through famine-stricken Ethiopia to reach the planes in Khartoum. Today, mahy of them collapsed at the roadsides from heat and want of food and water. They were given relief by other Israelis.
At Migdal Haemek, the marchers from absorption centers in Galilee were met by Jewish Agency officials and the local rabbi, David Grossman. They were persuaded to return, by bus, to the centers on the promise that Premier Shimon Peres would meet with their representatives and would bring their grievances before the Chief Rabbinate.
But about 150 of the protestors managed to reach Ben Gurion Airport where they staged a sit-in at the passenger terminal. Others marched from the absorption center at Kiryat Gat to the local offices of the rabbinate to protest.
FOUR MOTIONS ON THE KNESSET AGENDA
Four motions were placed on the Knesset agenda today dealing with the question of conversion for Ethiopian Jews. The Chief Rabbinate, which claims it recognizes them as Jews, originally insisted that all males undergo symbolic circumcision by drawing blood. They dropped that demand but are adamant on the ritual bath.
Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, has ruled the ritual unncessary because the Ethiopians are, for all intents and purposes, Jewish. But his successor, Mordechai Eliahu, and the Incumbent Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Avraham Shapiro, maintain that the conversion ritual is required because violations of halacha may have occurred in the families of the immigrants sometime in the past.
The rabbinate refuses to grant them marriage certificates without immersion because of the possibility that their ancestors may have married non-Jews. The identity cards issued to many of the immigrants do not state Jewish nationality. Instead, they are stamped “unregistered.”
One Ethiopian youth who was supposed to report for induction into the army last Sunday, refused to show up until after today’s protest march. “I don’t know what ‘unregistered’ means,” he told reporters.