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Behind the Headlines: Controversy over Role of Kessim is Latest to Galvanize Ethiopians

Ethiopian Jews have become increasingly disgruntled over their status in Israeli society, and they are turning their frustration into political action.

One of the latest issues of discontent has been the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize the authority of the Ethiopian Jewish leaders, known as kessim, in religious matters.

For two weeks, the kessim have demonstrated outside the Prime Minister’s Office, demanding the right to officiate at religious ceremonies, such as marriages, and in divorce proceedings here, as they did in Ethiopia.

The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize the kessim as rabbis because they are not versed in Jewish oral law. The Jews in Ethiopia followed the Torah but had no knowledge of the later rabbinic body of law. The chief rabbis said last week that the kessim cannot perform rabbinical functions until they pass a test in oral law.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with a dozen kessim in an attempt to resolve the dispute or at least ease the tensions it is causing.

But Rabin told reporters afterward that he did not have the authority to intervene in the dispute. “This is a matter for the rabbinate, and I cannot make a decision,” he said.

Acting Religious Affairs Minister Uzi Baram has proposed a compromise that would allow the kessim the right to perform religious functions after a six- month course of study, rather than the usual three-year study period.

But the kessim who met with Rabin said they had rejected Baram’s proposal on the grounds that kessim had been the recognized religious authorities in Ethiopia for 2,500 years.

At a news conference on behalf of the kessim called by the Movement for Ethiopian Jews in Israel, activist Ori Massala had harsh words for the prime minister.

“We are down in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, but he has not come out to us. He travels to Mevasseret Zion (absorption center) to kiss Ethiopian children, but he pays no attention to the Ethiopians outside his door. This is a deep insult to us as Jews,” he said.

The controversy over the authority of the kessim is only the latest of many issues to galvanize Ethiopian Jewish immigrants here.

In recent months, the Ethiopians have staged protest marches and hunger strikes, televised appeals and news conferences. Their demands for permanent housing, improved education and recognition as full-fledged Jews top the 9 p.m. news and the front pages of local newspapers.

After years of silence, the Ethiopians are demanding action.

The public emergence of the intensely private Ethiopian community has embarrassed several government agencies. From the Housing Ministry to the Jewish Agency, from the Absorption Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office, government officials are scurrying for solutions.

Many factors have contributed to the Ethiopians’ success in bringing their issues to the public, says longtime activist Rachamim Elazar.

“First, it is important to understand that our political awareness did not develop overnight,” said Elazar, who is secretary of the United Ethiopia Association, an umbrella group of 50 organizations.

“Six or seven years ago, after Operation Moses (brought in the first large wave of Ethiopian Jews), our students demanded that the government continue to rescue our families from Ethiopia.

“It worked, and after that things quieted down,” he said. “But now that the last Jews are out, we have begun to focus on problems with the absorption process.”

It is this past experience that has enabled the community to mobilize now, he said. “The students are now adults. They have lived here many years, speak Hebrew and understand the system,” he said.

As the activists have matured, so, too, have their organizational skills.

“All groups need help getting off the ground,” said Sari Revlin, director of Shatil, a non-profit group that gives assistance to voluntary organizations.

“We have helped various Ethiopian organizations, among others, to define their goals and to achieve them. We taught them how to develop a work plan, a budget, how to work with the media. In short, how to get their point across,” Revlin said.

Thanks to organizations like Shatil, several Ethiopian groups have learned that the best way to publicize a hunger strike or political demonstration is by contacting the media. During the past few months, televised images have helped the Ethiopians get their point across, and in some cases, to get results.

One such case last month involved hundreds of new immigrants, including many young children, who began a march from the coastal city of Ashkelon to the hills of Jerusalem to demand better housing. After hearing news reports of the demonstration, the absorption minister drove to the march and promised to look into the matter personally.

Despite the success of that march in bringing to light immigrants’ housing woes, many activists still see an uphill battle.

“We are still struggling for a place in this society, for the right to be married and divorced by any rabbi in Israel, for our religious leaders to be recognized, for decent housing and jobs,” said Erez Kinde of the Movement for Ethiopian Jews.

“As far as I can tell, this is only the beginning.”

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