Menu JTA Search

The Falash Mura’s Fate Falash Mura Immigration Stalled by Cost, Doubt over Jewish Identity

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

With the key parties saying they are ready to accelerate the pace of Falash Mura aliyah, why has the effort remained stalled since Israel’s Cabinet voted to bring these Ethiopians to Israel?

The holdup stems from lingering doubts about the Jewishness of the Falash Mura, especially among officials charged with implementing the Israeli government decision, concerns in Israel over the cost of absorbing another 13,000 to 20,000 Ethiopians, and apprehension that aliyah of the Falash Mura from Ethiopia will never end.

For Israelis concerned about the cost and prudence of Ethiopian aliyah, the questions of whether or not the Falash Mura are Jews, and under what circumstances their progenitors converted to Christianity, are of paramount importance.

Unlike the Beta Israel, who maintained a distinct Jewish identity in Ethiopia for centuries, epitomized by their observance of Shabbat and their rejection of Jesus as the messiah, the Falash Mura converted to Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though many advocates of Falash Mura aliyah maintain that the conversions resulted from economic and social pressures, scholars of Ethiopian Jewish history find little evidence of this. On the contrary, according to Steven Kaplan’s “The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century,” those who converted were far more likely to face social and economic exclusion than those who remained Jews. The converts faced ostracism both from the Jews whose tradition they rejected and from the Christians who refused to accept them as full-fledged members of their communities because they were members of the lowly Beta Israel caste.

This ostracism may have prevented the Falash Mura from intermarrying with Christians, allowing them to maintain a largely undisturbed Jewish bloodline until recent times.

This is partly why Israel’s Chief Rabbinate decided to apply to the Falash Mura the Jewish legal principle of, “A Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew.” That is, a person is a Jew so long as their maternal ancestral line is Jewish — even if their ancestors converted to Christianity 10 generations ago and have been practicing it ever since.

However, there is considerable debate over the degree to which the Falash Mura intermarried. Advocates of the Falash Mura maintain that intermarriage was a rare phenomenon until the most recent generation of Falash Mura. Others, including some scholars, suggest that intermarriage has been relatively common for several generations, and as a consequence a great proportion of those designated today as Falash Mura are not actually Jews.

To complicate matters further, the appellation Falash Mura is applied today not only to Christians of Jewish descent, but to full-blooded Christians who have married into families of Jewish descent. These Christians are estimated to make up to 30 percent of the Falash Mura population.

Even among the Falash Mura who have some biological link to Ethiopian Jewry, few if any seemed to have been aware they were Jews until they were told as much by American Jewish advocacy groups who identified them as such by their membership in the Beta Israel caste.

In interviews last year in the Ethiopian province of Gojam with Beta Israel peasants who had not yet migrated to the cities, villagers demonstrated no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever. Indeed, until their contact with American Jewish groups working in the cities, they had never heard of the Torah, never observed any Jewish holidays or rituals, and professed belief in Jesus. Many have crosses tattooed on their foreheads or wear crosses around their necks.

For these reasons, Israel requires that all Falash Mura immigrants undergo a comprehensive conversion course once they arrive in the Jewish state, culminating in ritual conversion. This is not something that was required of the Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel between 1984 and 1991, nor is it something that would be necessary if the Falash Mura were merely wayward Jews.

Before their arrival in Israel, the Falash Mura learn about Judaism in the compounds administered by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. At the Gondar compound — the Addis Ababa compound is closed — the Beta Israel take courses in Jewish prayer and some of them learn to lay talit and tefillin. They attend prayer services in the compounds’ ramshackle synagogues, the men donning kipot as they enter, the seats separated by gender. They also are taught the little Hebrew the teachers themselves know.

Some skeptics say the Jewish teachings at the NACOEJ compound are a ploy to facilitate Falash Mura aliyah by making the Falash Mura appear Jewish. The level of instruction at the compounds is superficial, they say, with children reciting the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew phrases without knowing what they mean, holding prayer books upside down during synagogue services and being taught by instructors who themselves know little more than the students.

Others say NACOEJ’s efforts constitute the noble undertaking of bringing lost Jews back to the faith of their ancestors. They say the teaching at the compound may not be ideal, but it’s the best possible given the circumstances. What’s more, they say, it has turned the younger generation of Beta Israel into real Jews.

“Their kids know only Judaism. They fast the Fast of Esther. They have already returned to Judaism,” said Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a member of the Chief Rabbinate’s committee for the absorption of Ethiopian Jews.

Waldman also has received funding from NACOEJ.

Many veteran Ethiopian immigrants in Israel resent the Falash Mura, partly because their aliyah carries a cloud of religious illegitimacy that has cast a shadow over all of Israel’s Ethiopian community. It doesn’t help that at the current aliyah rate, the size of Israel’s Falash Mura community will eclipse that of Israel’s veteran Ethiopian Jewish community some time this year, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

“The veteran community is not always so happy with what is going on with the new one,” said Mirla Gal, director general of the ministry.

Aside from the murky issue of religion, the cost of absorbing the Falash Mura has caused many an Israeli official to balk at throwing open the doors of the Jewish state to Ethiopian immigrants. Though many critics say racism plays a role in Israel’s reticence to accept the Ethiopians, pointing by contrast to Israel’s much easier acceptance of Russian immigrants of dubious Jewish origin, it is an economic fact that Ethiopians cost Israel far more than do Russian immigrants.

A Russian immigrant to Israel may struggle with linguistic and other barriers, but most adult immigrants from Russia practice trades that are somewhat transferable to Israel, and they need no special training on how to live in an industrial country.

By contrast, most Ethiopian adults who come to Israel know little other than subsistence farming, smithing or weaving — all trades that are not transferable to Israel. Many are illiterate and have never even used a fridge, toilet or gas stove before their arrival in Israel. It’s much harder for these Ethiopians to find jobs, and when they do, the jobs often are menial and low-paying.

According to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, Ethiopian immigrants receive grants for some 90 percent of the funds needed to purchase a home; 80 percent of the immigrants are welfare dependent; and their average stay in absorption centers is 18 months, much longer than other immigrants.

Each Ethiopian oleh costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates.

“The absorption of people coming from Ethiopia is completely different from those coming from other countries,” Gal said.

Finally, lingering fear in Israel that the aliyah of Falash Mura will never really end plays a significant role in the holdup over bringing to Israel the current group of 16,000 or so Falash Mura waiting in Gondar and Addis Ababa.

The Falash Mura call themselves Beta Israel, “seed of Israel,” but in this they are not unique; many Ethiopian natives believe they, too, are descendants of the kingdom of Israel. The former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, claimed he was a direct descendent of King Solomon and called himself the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

The fear some Israeli officials express privately is that if Ethiopia’s former emperor claimed Jewish descent, what’s to stop tens of millions of Ethiopians today from doing the same so they can escape the poverty of Africa for the relative wealth of Israel?

What’s more, a special investigation last year by this reporter found indications of thousands more Beta Israel in the Achefar region of Ethiopia who have not been accounted for by the Israeli government or American Jewish advocates of Ethiopian aliyah.

Living in remote villages that don’t generally appear on maps, few of these Beta Israel ever have ventured far beyond their rural homes, but they represent some of the probable thousands of Ethiopians hoping to make aliyah who have not yet been accounted for by the Israeli government.

The existence of these isolated Beta Israel communities may pose a serious challenge to Israel’s attempt to end mass aliyah from Ethiopia by the end of 2007.

In a country of 70 million, it’s possible that the Beta Israel left in Ethiopia number in the hundreds of thousands, not the thousands, and that Israel has seen only the tip of the iceberg of Ethiopian aliyah.

Go to www.jta.org/falashmura.asp for the full series.

NEXT STORY