JERUSALEM (May. 27)
“Every day I go to the Ministry of the Interior,” says Binkito Baquaia, grasping pictures of her family.
“I have been separated from my mother, father, brother and sisters for six years. I keep trying to find out what is happening with them, when Israel will bring them,” she continues. “The Ministry of the Interior staff repeatedly brush me off. They refuse to answer me.
“My mother and father are sick, but I can’t help them,” she says, her voice filled with pain. “I don’t have money and I have two children. I send whatever I can, but it is not enough.”
Baquaia is among thousands of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrating against the Interior Ministry this week, demanding that the immigration of the Falash Mura — the majority of whose ancestors converted to Christianity under social and economic pressure — be expedited.
Some 2,000 protesters marched through Jerusalem on Sunday, congregating in front of the Interior Ministry for a six- hour demonstration.
The demonstrators also threatened a hunger strike if their demands are not met.
“We are demanding the implementation of the government’s Feb. 16 decision” to expedite the immigration of the Falash Mura, said Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion: The Association for the Ingathering and Absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, which is organizing the weeklong protest.
The activists also are calling on Diaspora Jews to provide assistance for the Falash Mura waiting to immigrate.
When Israel began carrying out large-scale immigration operations of Ethiopian Jews in the early 1990s, many Falash Mura attempted to join the wave, claiming they were Jewish by ancestry.
The number of Falash Mura continued to grow, leading the Israeli government to believe they were not Jews but just wanted to leave famine-plagued Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Jewish activists have been lobbying for the Falash Mura, maintaining that many of them were forced to convert or never really abandoned their Jewish faith, and that now they are practicing Judaism.
In 1998, after bringing a group of 4,000 Falash Mura, most of whom had relatives in Israel, the government changed its policy, reviewing each Ethiopian immigration request on an individual basis. In 1999, government surveyors registered 26,000 people in camps run by international activists in Addis Ababa and Gondar. A few thousand have immigrated every year since then, but some have been waiting for up to 10 years to join family members in Israel.
The Feb. 16 decision ordered the government to immediately examine the eligibility of an estimated 18,000 waiting to immigrate and bring anyone descended from an Ethiopian Jew on the mother’s side.
But Neguise claimed that Interior Minister Avraham Poraz last week reversed the Feb. 16 decision, arguing that Israel does not have enough money to bring the Falash Mura.
The “economic difficulties of the state cannot be ignored,” Poraz told the Knesset committee on May 19, according to the Post. “Every time the camps are emptied they become refilled. This is a never-ending story.”
In addition, he noted, those brought to Israel might later try to bring over additional relatives still in Ethiopia.
In the week since Poraz spoke, Neguise said, 26 Falash Mura youth died in Addis Ababa and Gondar of sickness and hunger.
“We never said that we are going to bring them immediately,” said the ministry spokesman, Tipi Rabinovitch. “The decision still stands that Israel is interested in bringing the Falash Mura, and that we need to establish a board, to check whether it’s economically feasible to bring them.”
Joseph Feit, past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, questions that approach. Never before has Israel turned its back on immigrants because of financial concerns, Feit says.
“It was in much worse economic shape in the 1950s, but it brought in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees,” he said.
Demonstrators argued that money is an excuse for postponing the resolution of a decade-long humanitarian crisis.
Mikoyet Zagiyeh, an Israeli soldier whose father is stuck in Ethiopia, noted that Israel sends government representatives to actively scout out immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“I serve with Russians who have no connection to Judaism whatsoever,” he said, “but they were brought to Israel and they have all these rights.”
Asked if the ministry considers economic factors when deciding to bring immigrants from Russia or Argentina, Rabinovitch hedged.
“Money is always somewhere in the picture,” he said.
“We’re talking about over 10 million shekels” — almost $2.5 million– “for every 10,000 immigrant Falash Mura,” said Arik Puder, spokesman for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.
“Falash Mura immigrants come from another kind of culture, another kind of country and society,” he said. “We need to give a lot of special programs in order to absorb them into Israeli society. They are much further away from the standards of living here than are Russian immigrants.”
Demonstrators said they believe the current crisis is rooted in a much deeper problem — how Israelis view and treat Ethiopians.
“They look at us with closed eyes,” said Alamu Mondevro, who is frustrated by the assumption that the cultural, spiritual and intellectual exchange among Ethiopian immigrants and veteran Israelis is a one-way street.
“We want to teach Israelis, but they don’t even want to approach us, to be around us,” he said.
Israeli ignorance of Ethiopian Jewish life has contributed to numerous misunderstandings regarding the Falash Mura, said Adam Baruch, Ethiopian community organizer for HILA, the Israel Association for Equality in Education.
“Christian missionary activities in Ethiopia were very, very strong,” he said. “They knew how to pick on weak people. They gave money to those in need, then brainwashed them. Missionary activities were a form of war against all the Ethiopian Jews.”
During times of famine and drought, Neguise said, Jews had to leave their villages in search of better land. Often they would settle in areas with an aggressive Christian population.
“If they didn’t renounce Judaism they could not settle in that area,” a fate often tantamount to death, he said.
Demonstrators say the Falash Mura took on Christian identities but secretly remained Jews, marrying only their own kind. In this way, Neguise said, they can be compared to the conversos of Spain.
Asked about some of the Falash Mura who continue to practice Christianity even after coming to Israel, Baruch said, “Ethiopians are feeling very alienated. They feel rejected from Israeli society.”
There is a strong Christian missionary movement in Israel that sees Ethiopians as easy prey, he said.
Still, Baruch agrees that the current group is not the last.
“Other Jews will come. Nobody here can know how many Jews are in Ethiopia, how many Falash Mura,” he said.
None of the demonstrators thinks that’s enough reason for Israel to turn its back on the Falash Mura. Feit brandished a copy of a letter sent last Friday from Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
After 18 months of exhaustive research — including a personal trip to Ethiopia — Amar had concluded that the Falash Mura are “100 percent Jews, without a doubt” and should “immediately be brought to Israel” so as “to rescue them from the jaws of death,” the letter reads.
“There is no reason at this point, simply no reason” that the Falash Mura shouldn’t be brought to Israel immediately, says Irwin Cotler, a Canadian legislator who for 25 years has been an activist for Ethiopian Jewish rights.
Many demonstrators say the real reason for the delay is racism — though Poraz has issued a statement calling such allegations “completely unfounded.”
“I would not wish to have such inferences” as racism “be drawn,” Cotler says, “but the government will have only itself to blame. “After so many years, people have begun to say to themselves, ‘Well, what possible reason can there be for us not being brought?’ “
Meanwhile, the activists are demanding that Diaspora Jewry, through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, provide humanitarian aid and education for those in the camps.
In a letter to the JDC and other American Jewish leaders — a letter that made its way to the press but which the JDC said it hasn’t received — Neguise wrote, “In contrast to its conduct in the” former Soviet Union, “Argentina and other countries, the Joint almost completely ignores thousands of our brethren awaiting aliyah in Ethiopia. Other than partial medical assistance, it does not assist at all in education, providing financial aid or teaching the heritage of the Jewish people.”
He demanded that the JDC “desist from this discrimination and begin to provide aid on the same basis as it provides assistance to all other Jewish communities in distress.”
JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager, flatly rejected the charge.
While its role is to nourish populations that aim to stay put, the JDC has a program in Ethiopia, where the Falash Mura hope to make aliyah, Schwager said.
“We have a medical care program that provides medical care to all the population,” with special emphasis on malnourished children and the elderly.
He said there was no need for the JDC to provide education because schooling and religious training is run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.
Asked whether the JDC and the American Jewish community support Falash Mura aliyah, Schwager deferred to Israel.
“When the Israeli government recognizes them as Jews, then the community will support them,” Schwager said.
“The decision that was made said the policy of the government will be to recognize matrilineal descent,” he said. “Now the Israelis have to implement the policy.”
Once individuals are approved on a case-by-case basis, JDC officials said, they’ll get assistance from the JDC in the way of money, food and clothing until it’s time for them to depart.