Ethiopian Jews End Four-week Protest

A four-week protest sit-down strike by Ethiopian Jews outside Chief Rabbi note headquarters ended late yesterday after the strike leaders were convinced that the Chief Rabbis would formally endorse an accord reached in a bitter dispute over the Ethiopian immigrants’ status as Jews.

The two Chief Rabbis, Mordechai Eliahu (Sephardic) and Avraham Shapiro (Ashkenazic) had demanded that the emigres submit to ritual immersion, a religious conversion rite, before they would be allowed to marry. The Ethiopians considered this a gross insult that questioned their authenticity as Jews.

After weeks of negotiations in which Premier Shimon Peres personally intervened, an agreement was reached whereby a panel of Ethiopian Kessim (elders) would investigate the family history of each couple applying for a marriage certificate to ascertain whether they were Jewish by halachic standards.

The marriage registrars will be required to accept the findings of the Kessim, except where the evidence was insufficient, and ritual conversion would be waived. The strike leaders balked at ending the sit-down when they discovered the Chief Rabbis had not actually signed the document of agreement but instead sent a letter to Peres undertaking to recommend it to the 10-member Chief Rabbinate Council. They were finally persuaded, however, that the undertaking was tantamount to endorsement.

But mistrust persists between the Ethiopians and the Orthodox religious establishment. The immigrants said they would have several couples from around the country apply for marriage licenses under the agreement to test its sincerity and workability.

The Chief Rabbis may have aggravated the mistrust by alleging the dispute was “incited” by Communist agitators among the Ethiopians, a charge hotly denied.

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