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The Falash Mura’s Fate Ethiopians Wait to Immigrate As Israel, U.S. Jews Plan Their Future

(This is the first article in a 7-part special JTA report on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.)

Just outside the gates of the Jewish aid compound in this city, a shantytown of decrepit tin shacks, overcrowded homes and debris-filled byways beckon the reticent visitor.

Barefoot children stumble amid the flotsam, part of the milieu of stray dogs, mule-drawn carts and mendicants that comprise the dusty street scene in this part of Addis Ababa.

Here, among the fetid smells and homes fashioned from scrap metal, live several thousand Falash Mura — Ethiopians linked to Jews whose progenitors converted to Christianity but who now are returning to Judaism in a bid to immigrate to the Jewish state.

They’ve come here and to slums in the city of Gondar from their rural villages, abandoning their farms and occupations as blacksmiths, potters and weavers to live near the aid compounds and, more importantly, to be close to the Israeli officials in whose hands their fate rests.

Every month, some 300 of the luckier ones are selected to be taken to Israel. Once there, they are granted Israeli citizenship, taught Hebrew and Judaism while residing in absorption centers. In due course, they are provided with about 90 percent of the funds they need to buy a home.

It is a generous package, and one that has more than a few Israelis and American Jews concerned there will never be an end to Ethiopian aliyah.

This fear — and stories of Ethiopians perpetrating deceit to escape Africa’s desperate poverty by way of a visa to Israel — has stalled plans to end mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

The Israeli Cabinet decided back in February 2003 to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia to Israel. A year ago, Israel agreed to expedite the pace of aliyah for the 20,000 the state was told remained, setting in place detailed procedures for an operation that would double the rate of aliyah to 600 persons per month, bringing all those eligible by the end of 2007.

But so far none of the plan’s key phases have been put in motion, a fact many attribute to the disappearance of the plan’s key political champion: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“Sharon was the engine behind this. He pushed this through. He took the decisions. He set the timetable,” said Ori Konforti, the senior official in Ethiopia for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for immigration to Israel. “Now there is no engine for this.”

A 36-hour visit last week to Ethiopia by a delegation of some 70 American Jewish federation leaders aimed to change that.

The mission to Ethiopia came five months after the umbrella group of the North American federation system, the United Jewish Communities, launched Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign for overseas needs. Of that total, $100 million is to go for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption; the other $60 million is designated primarily for elder care in the former Soviet Union.

The goal of the five-day trip to Ethiopia and Israel was to motivate federation leaders to go out and raise the money needed to reach the $160 million goal. UJC’s hope is that moving forward on that pledge will prompt Israel to begin expediting Ethiopian aliyah. So far, more than $45 million has been raised for the operation, according to UJC officials.

“The money needs to be there, and all the rest flows,” Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC said in an interview at the time the pledge was made.

“Frankly, I think we came to the conclusion on this subject that we need to hold up our share of the bargain, so to speak, and by moving forward and taking this action — which we very much plan to implement — at least we’ve carried out our responsibility,” Rieger said. “Will the government carry out theirs? I hope and expect they will.”

Even if the $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah is raised quickly, the lion’s share of the burden of absorbing the Ethiopians will continue to rest squarely on Israel. On average, each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. And more money for Ethiopian immigration means less money for Israel’s other pressing needs.

“It’s very difficult to absorb them, and there are so many poor Israelis who need help, too,” said Nachman Shai, director general of UJC Israel. “This will happen, but it will take time.”

Money will not solve some of the most significant problems that have riddled Falash Mura aliyah since its inception in the early 1990s, after the final group of practicing Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel en masse in Operation Solomon in 1991.

The conundrum of Falash Mura aliyah is tied up with the questions of how many potential immigrants exist among Ethiopia’s 70 million citizens, how to stymie unqualified Ethiopians from emigrating to Israel and the cost of absorbing the immigrants.

The most important piece of the puzzle, by many accounts, is nailingdown the final list of who is and who isn’t eligible for aliyah. That would enable Israel and American Jewry to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian aliyah and get a real sense of the total cost and scope of the project.

Without such a list, officials fear, the number of Ethiopians seeking to emigrate to Israel will continue to grow and there will be no end to Ethiopian aliyah.

“If you ask me today how many people are waiting for aliyah, I can’t tell you how many,” acknowledged an Israeli Interior Ministry official working in Ethiopia.

The Interior Ministry is the Israeli government body charged with determining who is qualified to immigrate to the Jewish state. “It’s hard for us to bring an answer. People are still in the villages who have not yet come,” the official said.

Last year, a special investigation by this reporter found indications of thousands of heretofore unknown Falash Mura in the Ethiopian hinterlands of Achefar, potentially adding thousands of people to the number of those seeking to emigrate to Israel.

“I hear stories about Israel from the elders,” said Guade Meles, 46, one of the Falash Mura living in the Ethiopian countryside. Guade — Ethiopians are known by their first names — is from the town of Ismallah, in Ethiopia’s rural Gojam province. “They told me there are benefits there. My cousins have gone to Israel. My wife’s brothers have gone to Israel.”

Other accounts exist of Falash Mura communities scattered elsewhere in the country, and there are many individual Ethiopians of Jewish descent living among non-Jews in places like the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray.

In the hovels of Addis Ababa and the mud-and-straw tukuls of rural Ethiopia, it’s difficult to sort out exactly who is and who isn’t Falash Mura.

The Ethiopians seeking to emigrate today call themselves Beta Israel, a caste designation associated with the smithing trades the Ethiopian Jews known pejoratively as Falashas — traditionally performed during centuries of prohibition against land ownership.

While the Jewish state decided in the early 1980s to welcome Beta Israel who had kept their Jewish faith and identities — and facilitated their aliyah in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991 — Israel turned away the Beta Israel who had abandoned Judaism generations ago when their ancestors converted. These people are called Falash Mura.

Israel’s policy on the Falash Mura changed in the 1990s, largely due to advocacy by American Jews and vocal protests by relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel.

In the countryside of Gojam province, the Falash Mura can be found in clusters of mud-and-straw huts built amid eucalyptus trees. In one village, a pair of women are bent over incipient clay pots, their mud-covered hands shaping the wet earth into new jugs. Not far away, a few dozen men work barefoot in the field, cutting hay for the roof of their church.

Though they pray in a Christian church and hang pictures of the Virgin Mary in their home, these people call themselves Beta Israel. Many of them have relatives who have gone to Gondar and Addis, some of whom have made it to Israel.

Those who have left their villages and gone to live in the cities, closer to where Israel’s representatives in Ethiopia work and live, say they have ceased their Christian practices. Some of them don yarmulkes while in the Jewish aid compounds, many take lessons in Judaism and all hope that embracing the Jewish faith will help get them to the Jewish state.

Abeyna Worku, 33, came to Gondar from the nearby village of Alefa four years ago. Most of Alefa’s residents have left for Gondar, but some 200 remain in the village, he said.

“Most of my relatives are in Israel and I want to join them,” Worku says. “Israel is good since it’s the promised land from our grandparents.”

It is difficult to prove the Jewish heritage of these Ethiopians, most of whom were practicing Christians until they were told they needed to embrace Judaism to be eligible for aliyah. As a result, they are not petitioning to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

Rather, Israeli officials are verifying whether the Falash Mura qualify for aliyah under Israel’s Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate to the Jewish state. So rather than having to come up with documents proving they are Jews, which nobody in Ethiopia has, these Ethiopians are trying to prove they are the immediate relatives of Ethiopians already in Israel.

That also means that some of those seeking to qualify under the Law of Entry are not Jews at all, but Christian relatives of Jews. Some estimate these Christians constitute up to 30 percent of Ethiopian olim.

Habtu Gidyelew, 32, is one of those people. He married an Ethiopian Israeli six months ago and now hopes to join her in Israel. She moved to Israel 15 years ago, and the couple met during her visits back to Ethiopia.

“I met her three years ago,” Habtu said. “I want to be with her because I love her.”

The eligibility verification process for Ethiopian aliyah is slow and painstaking, and it is plagued by the problems of trying to verify who is related to whom when there are no birth certificates or written records. It also requires running an operation simultaneously in Israel and Ethiopia and weeding out the liars from the truth-tellers among people who know that demonstrating one’s ties to Jewish kin is a way to get a free ticket out of Africa, automatic Israeli citizenship and access to a broad array of social services in Israel.

More than 75,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since the early 1980s.

Because it is so costly to absorb these immigrants in Israel, this means the stakes are extremely high both for Israel and for the Ethiopians seeking aliyah.

At the moment, it is American Jews like the federation leaders on the mission here that are trying to grease the wheels of the aliyah operation.

“I think the government plan that was approved was a good plan, and I think it needs to be implemented,” said Barry Shrage, head of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“The worst thing that happens is they take them out and there’ll be another 20,000,” Shrage said. “But I’m not going to be suicidal if in the end it’s 40,000.”

That sort of attitude is precisely what worries officials in Israel, who will have to bear the burden of absorbing the immigrants.

Some of the Falash Mura’s advocates — namely, a few American Jews and Ethiopian family members and community leaders already in Israel — accuse the Israeli government of indifference or racism in dragging its feet on accepting these Ethiopians as immigrants.

There are Ethiopians who have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar for as long as eight years, impoverished by the loss of their livelihoods in their move to the city, susceptible to the HIV-infected prostitutes that ply their trade on the city’s streets at night and dependent on assistance like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s feeding program for young mothers and their babies.

For their part, many Israelis, including some Ethiopians, blame the Falash Mura’s advocates with creating this state of ongoing misfortune. These critics say groups like the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which has been the primary advocacy and aid group for Ethiopian aliyah in the last decade and receives funding from Jewish federations, created a crisis of internal displacement in Ethiopia by maintaining their aid compounds.

By doing that, NACOEJ has tacitly or intentionally given Ethiopians with no knowledge of their Jewish lineage the expectation that they will be able to get to Israel if they move to the cities, and turned communities of self-sustaining farmers and craftsmen into aid-dependent internal refugees, impoverished and condemned to a hardscrabble urban life.

NACOEJ rejects such arguments, saying that if not for their work, not only would Beta Israel migrants starve in the cities while awaiting aliyah, they also would be far less prepared for life in the Jewish state once they arrived there.

This claim is belied, however, by the current situation in Addis, where the community continues to survive despite the closure of NACOEJ’s compound there some 18 months ago following legal troubles. Those troubles prompted Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry to bar the group from operating in Addis.

Privately, some Jewish officials herald this as a positive development, because NACOEJ’s advocacy has helped swell the number of Ethiopian petitioners seeking to immigrate to Israel. Both these American Jews and officials in Israel worry that once the Falash Mura now in Gondar and Addis emigrate, thousands more will show up and demand to be taken to Israel.

“We’ll take these 20,000 and then there’ll be more,” said one senior American Jewish organizational official who asked not to be identified. “This could be 1998 all over again.”

In 1998, Israel’s government held a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport welcoming what then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded as the last planeload of Falash Mura to arrive in Israel. A month later, 8,000 more people poured into NACOEJ’s compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar demanding to be taken to Israel. The number soon swelled to 14,000.

This time, having learned some of the lessons of 1998, Israel plans to have the Jewish Agency take over the NACOEJ compounds, which provide food aid, schooling and some employment but are not residential. The goal is to shut the compounds down as soon as the current group of immigrants, now estimated at 13,000 to 17,000, are brought to Israel.

Acknowledging that U.S. Jewish federations had a role in keeping the compounds open in 1998, Robert Goldberg, chairman of the UJC, said, “In some way, we’ve encouraged these people to come. Nobody’s perfect. We do our best, and we have the best of intentions.”

Now, Goldberg said, “The compounds have to be closed.”

“What I would like to see is all of them come in a weekend,” Goldberg said of the Ethiopians awaiting aliyah. “If you can prepare everything in Israel, you don’t have to wait and bring out 600 a month. You can bring them all out. I’m going to push for it.

“Unless there’s a good plan to end it, there will be more,” he warned. “We don’t even know if they’re telling the truth. They just want to get out of here.”

One thing seems certain: The longer it takes to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel, the more olim, or immigrants, there will be.

That infuses the current push to speed up the aliyah process. And for the first time in a long time, it seems that many of the necessary ingredients are in place to accelerate the aliyah of the Falash Mura and write the last chapter on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency has trained 40 to 60 workers to take over the aid compounds in Gondar and Addis from NACOEJ, which has promised to cease its advocacy work for Ethiopian aliyah once the expedited aliyah process begins.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry signed a deal with the Ethiopian government last fall on coordinating the aliyah eligibility verification process, and Israel’s Finance Ministry says it has allocated an extra $45 million for the accelerated aliyah operation in 2006.

But Israel’s government has not yet given the green light to begin the operation, and nobody is quite able to say why.

The Interior Ministry blames the Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry says it is waiting for the government to decide on an exact date. In one sign of the mishandling of this issue by the Israelis, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry declared two weeks ago that the expedited aliyah already had begun. It had not.

Many observers say the accelerated aliyah will not commence until the prime minister himself gives word.

Last week, Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, canceled a meeting in Israel with the American delegation that had visited Ethiopia. By all accounts Ethiopian aliyah is far down the list of priorities for a state dealing with a comatose prime minister, upcoming elections and a new Hamas terrorist state on its doorstep.

Meanwhile, the Falash Mura continue to wait in Ethiopia, their fate in the hands of faraway Jews in New York and Jerusalem.

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