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Massive New Group of Ethiopians Claiming to Be of Jewish Descent

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A petition from a large group of Ethiopians claiming Jewish status and descent is causing sharp concerns here that the group’s activities may strain relations between Israel and Ethiopia.

The group, known as the Semite Nation of the Gihon, comprises some 4 million Ethiopians.

For now, the group is not proposing aliyah. But it wants to set up a headquarters in Israel.

The Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Haim Divon, voiced fears in a cable to Jerusalem that this episode could seriously damage relations between the two countries.

The Semite Nation of the Gihon is a separate entity from the Falash Mora, Ethiopians whose ancestors converted to Christianity from Judaism and who wish to go to Israel, many of them to reunite with kin.

Israel’s policy is to allow a small number of Falash Mora to enter the country, as immigrants or under family reunification schemes, after undergoing “back to Judaism” courses while still in Ethiopia.

The first such group of Falash Mora was due to arrive here Monday.

Israel is not anxious to encourage the wholesale aliyah of groups whose ties to authentic Jewishness are remote at best, artificial at worst.

Leaders of the Semite Nation of the Gihon sent letters to both the Israeli and Ethiopian governments explaining their requests.

The letter to the president of Ethiopia was signed by Mussa Tagani, an anthropologist and sociologist who claims to head the organization, which is centered north of the capital, Addis Ababa.

In a separate letter to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Tagani requested the Israeli government’s consent for the group to set up an office in Israel.

In an interview with the Ha’aretz newspaper published Sunday, Ambassador Divon noted that because economic opportunities for Ethiopian olim in Israel are so much better than those for ordinary working people in Ethiopia, emigration to Israel has become an attractive proposition.

The envoy stressed the Ethiopian government’s sensitivity to moves that can upset the delicate ethnic and religious balances there.

Government officials here are wary that activists in the United States and Israel are hoping to populate the West Bank with immigrants from Ethiopia and elsewhere who have recently put forward claims of Jewishness. The aim is to change the demographic balance between Arabs and Jews in the territories.

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