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Ethiopia Expels Nine American Jews for Trying to Convert Falash Mora

Nine American Jews were expelled from Ethiopia last week after being accused of proselytizing and working without permits.

The group, including eight volunteers and one staff member of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, were leading classes in basic Judaism for a group of refugees hoping to emigrate and settle in Israel.

“Four men showed up at dinner Wednesday night,” recounted Alison Feit, one of the volunteers deported from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “They said, ‘You have 30 minutes to pack your bags. You’re being arrested and deported.’ “

Feit, a student at Yale University, had been in Ethiopia just over two weeks.

The aborted classes had been requested by the Falash Mora, Christians of Jewish descent who have left their homes for the capital, where they are waiting by the thousands to emigrate.

A specially appointed Israeli ministerial committee decided earlier this year to admit only those Falash Mora who have immediate family in Israel, but not as Jews. Those able to prove their Jewish descent on a case-by-case basis will be admitted under Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship for Jewish immigrants.

The Ethiopian government, while amenable to emigration, is adamantly opposed to any proselytization. This reflects both the position of the Ethiopian Church and the fact that Ethiopian Christians with some Jewish ancestry number in the hundreds of thousands.

The number of actual Falash Mora, whose ancestors converted in the past century, is smaller, perhaps 30,000.

Some 2,800 Falash Mora are living in Addis Ababa, where they receive humanitarian aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. That aid continues, despite the deportations.

Among those deported was Andy Goldman, who directed NACOEJ activities in Ethiopia. At least for the moment, those other activities, including an employment workshop and a school, continue.

A TACIT GREEN LIGHT FROM ISRAEL?

Until the arrival of Feit and her fellow volunteers, there had been no Jewish studies taught in the school.

Such classes, for children and adults, are “something the Falash Mora have been asking for, for a long time now,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of NACOEJ.

Among the reasons for not giving those classes until now, she admitted, was “some concern that the Ethiopian government might be concerned about it.”

The volunteers were teaching under the direction of Rabbi Menahem Waldman, who has worked extensively with the Falash Mora on behalf of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and who was sent to determine for the rabbinate the authenticity of their claim of being Jewish.

Waldman left Ethiopia last week, prior to the deportations. Upon his return to Israel, he began declaring that he has determined the Falash Mora are Jewish.

But that is a determination the Israeli government apparently is not bound to accept and to which it has not yet officially responded.

Waldman’s decision could have an impact on an expected ruling from Israel’s High Court of Justice on a case about the status of the Falash Mora.

Some Falash Mora advocates here say privately that the Israeli government has a vested interest in “making the issue go away” and therefore was served by last week’s expulsions.

The NACOEJ workers have been the lifeline for the few thousand refugees waiting in Addis Ababa, said one source. And as long as the compound where they are waiting is active, it is a “fact on the ground” and an issue that is “impossible to sweep under the rug.”

These advocates believe Israel was consulted by the Ethiopian government before the expulsions and sent a signal that it would not object.

But a spokesman for Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry denied responsibility. “Israel had nothing to do with the expulsions and did nothing to encourage them,” he said.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, reportedly has lodged strong protests with the Ethiopian government about the expulsions.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Cynthia Mann in Jerusalem.)

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