JERUSALEM, May 22 (JTA) — From the hilltop caravan site known as Givat Hamatos, the entire new city of Jerusalem shines below like a mirage.
About 150 Ethiopian immigrant families once known as Falash Mura — Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity — look down in envy at everything from the drab housing projects of Katamon to the quaint red-roofed homes of old Talpiot.
Yet despite their relative poverty, most of the people here know they are very lucky. Back in Ethiopia, war is raging, famine is spreading and 26,000 more Falash Mura — including many of their family members — are desperately waiting to be granted entry to Israel. Some 18,000 of then have amassed at transit camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where they live in squalid conditions.
They would be more than happy to live in temporary housing.
Last month, Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky returned from a visit to Ethiopia with promises to expedite the process of verifying who is eligible to immigrate. But Sharansky also indicated that perhaps only several thousand will qualify.
For Israel, the unresolved debate over whether the Falash Mura were originally converted by force or chose Christianity is not the main issue. Rather, Israel fears that a sweeping exodus could open the floodgates to non-Jewish Ethiopians seeking to escape Africa by claiming reunification with family members in Israel.
But the residents of Givat Hamatos do not understand why, if the Jewish state has recognized their right to return, their relatives are undergoing such scrutiny.
“They are eligible to come,” said Bakala Abera, a tall 65-year-old high school director who immigrated with his Falash Mura wife and then converted to Judaism himself. Abera’s wife has two brothers waiting to emigrate from Ethiopia.
“The people in the camps have left their homes, farms cattle and everything,” Abera said. “The Israeli government must facilitate their arrival. I find it a very puzzling question why they are making difficulties for Ethiopians when there is no such difficulty for immigrants from other states.”
Israel says the problem is not so simple. In 1997 and 1998, pressure mounted on Israel to allow about 4,000 Falash Mura to immigrate.
“We decided to bring them all in without checking them,” Sharansky told JTA. “When it was checked, we discovered that more than half were not really eligible” iunder the Law of Return.
Sharansky rejected accusations that the government is dragging its feet because the immigrants are black.
“One of the most disgusting things that I have heard is that Israel brings goyim from Russia and lets Jews die because they are black,” said Sharansky. “Of all the countries in the world, we are the only ones bringing black people from Africa and granting them citizenship immediately. We never provided such liberal criteria like in Ethiopia.”
Sharansky has now secured support from the Finance Ministry and American Jewish organizations to increase the government staff in Ethiopia from one to three people. The Jewish Agency for Israel expects about 10 people — Israelis and local staffers — to be on the ground by the end of May. There are currently about 250 Ethiopians cleared for immigration.
However, although Sharansky hopes that the process will be speeded up “by many times,” it could take as long as a year before all potential immigrants are checked. It’s a very tedious process because most people have no documents and their eligibility must be verified by field research.
It is possible, he added, that more than half of those waiting will be denied visas.
“They are saying that anyone with an aunt or uncle should come,” said Sharansky. “But we do not have such a policy under the Law of Return.”
Israel’s Law of Return allows immigration for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, along with his or her spouse, children, grandchildren and their spouses.
Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, a Falash Mura lobby group, disagrees.
Flipping through lists of all the Falash Mura families still in Ethiopia compiled by an Israeli committee, Neguise shows that almost every single one of the 26,000 would-be immigrants claims a relative in Israel — more than two-thirds claim a first-degree relation.
“It is very convincing,” he said. “The most distant relative you see here is cousins.”
“If this kind of community existed in Russia or America or Europe, the Jewish Agency would be very happy to quickly bring the people and rejoice,” he said, accusing the government of racist-driven foot-dragging despite a severe humanitarian crisis.
“Here, everyone wants to avoid the issue. Maybe it’s because they are of different color, or because they are poor and are not engineers or doctors or professors. I say, Was this the value of Zionism, of a Jewish state?”
The Jewish Agency rejects any responsibility for the bottleneck, since it is only responsible for implementing government policy and does not decide who is eligible to immigrate.
Nevertheless, Mike Rosenberg, director of the immigration and absorption department at the Jewish Agency, said that everything is being done to speed up the process.
“But we are not going to guarantee that everyone is eligible,” he added. “I believe that most of them are not eligible under the Law of Return, but many may be because of family ties.”
This, he explains, is the nut of the problem. Rosenberg compares the situation to a long line for a movie. “If there are 26,000 people on line you will not get on the line, but if the line starts moving and it’s the best movie in town you will be on it.”
Neguise, the Falash Mura activist, rejects such fears, claiming that the community is closed. “Everybody knows who belongs and who does not,” he said.
However, the Falash Mura immigrants who have already arrived are apparently keenly aware of what is at stake.
“It will not even end after 50,000 immigrants,” said one source close to the Falash Mura community, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Even they say that this will not be the end of it.”
FALASH MURA FIND ROUGH TRANSITION
Absorbing Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society has never been easy, but with the Falash Mura, the challenges are even greater.
Potential immigrants are allowed to come to Israel on the condition that they convert to Judaism and live their lives as observant Jews. They know this in advance of their arrival, and all agree. But few are aware of what this entails.
For example, the conversion process demands that all males — even circumcised ones — undergo a ritual of symbolic circumcision involving a small cut to the genitals. Many find this degrading.
They are also asked to remarry their spouses in a Jewish ceremony, a process that couples with children and grandchildren considered absurd.
If they do not undergo the entire process, the Falash Mura immigrants are denied fundamental rights such as social security and unemployment income.
Most of the 4,000 Falash Mura immigrants who arrived in Israel in 1997 and 1998 go to great lengths to demonstrate that they are practicing Jews.
They try very hard to shake off the derogatory term Falash Mura, and the Israeli staff at the Ethiopian immigrant community of Givat Hamatos has banned the word.
“We decided not to call them Falash Mura because this is a sensitive issue,” said Danny Dorani, manager of the Givat Hamatos site for the Jerusalem municipality.
“As far as we are concerned, they are immigrants from Ethiopia.”
Veteran Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are often not nearly as sensitive. The Beta Yisrael, or Ethiopian Jewish community, has for generations detested the Falash Mura, a community that they say abandoned Judaism while the Beta Yisrael stuck to their roots at great personal risk. Many look down on those who have returned to Judaism to come to Israel.
Meanwhile, Absorption Ministry officials say the absorption process is even more difficult than for other Ethiopian Jewish groups because most Falash Mura have spent an extended period of time waiting to depart for Israel in camps, where they did not work or fend for themselves.
“Our ministry is not ready for this long-term process financially, either,” said a ministry spokesperson.
The Jewish Agency for Israel agrees. “The main problem here is that it is still a tremendous task to absorb these people,” said Mike Rosenberg, director of the immigration and absorption department at the Jewish Agency.
“If they come faster, it means the problem will be even greater and our feeling is that the Jewish people around the world have an obligation to help.”