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Violence Erupts at Demonstration for Ethiopian Religious Leaders

Police on Thursday forcefully dispersed hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrating in front of the Prime Minister’s Office for the right of their religious leaders, called kessim, to be granted rabbinical powers.

The demonstration was the culmination of a nearly two-week sit-in strike by the kessim at the Rose Garden, across the street from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The demonstrators had blocked the road before the office.

Some 28 demonstrators were detained, then released following a brief interrogation. Nine demonstrators and three police officers were wounded in the clash and hospitalized.

Despite the clash, the Ethiopian olim’s demands were met, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will see them to discuss the problem on Sunday.

A meeting held Monday between representatives of the kessim and Israel’s two chief rabbis ended without agreement over the kessim’s authority to perform marriages. The Ethiopian leaders left Hechal Shlomo, the Central Rabbinate, slamming the door behind them. The chief rabbinical council has consistently resisted giving the Ethiopian religious leaders the power to perform marriages or issue rabbinical orders.

According to Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, the Ethiopian religious leaders are not sufficiently knowledgeable to perform such duties. At most, he said, they should be permitted to act as religious guides.

The kessim rejected an offer to settle for creation of a committee to review their status. At week’s end, another compromise proposal was in the offing, granting the kessim the power to register marriages and divorces as clerks, rather than religious leaders. However, the chief rabbinical council objected to that suggestion, on the grounds that the kessim cannot write in Hebrew.

According to sources at the Chief Rabbinate, leaflets were distributed this week at the immigrant absorption center in Beersheba warning that any Ethiopian who would cooperate with the Rabbinate would be excommunicated by the community.

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