Op-Ed: Help Ethiopians in Israel, not the Falash Mura

By Howard Lenhoff and Nathan Shapiro

CHICAGO (JTA) — When the leaders of Jewish federations from across North America gather in Jerusalem next week for the annual General Assembly, the issue of Ethiopian immigration and absorption undoubtedly will be a top concern.

While it is imperative that the federations help Israel absorb the Ethiopian immigrants already living in the Jewish state, the federations should not press Israel to accept the Falash Mura remaining in Africa — Ethiopians who claim they are linked to descendants of true Ethiopian Jews forced to convert to Christianity.

We address this issue because from 1978 through 1993, we served as presidents of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, also known as the AAEJ. As pioneer advocates for the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, we believe that the continued immigration of Falash Mura does a disservice to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, known as Beta Israel.

Any Falash Mura left in Ethiopia should be accepted into Israel only if they qualify to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return. Under that law, most Falash Mura would not be eligible.

Current news reports and editorial commentary may confuse well-meaning American Jews into thinking Israel must accept all the Falash Mura.

The issue is complex.

The Falash Mura dilemma began in May 1991 when Israel rescued more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews during the span of 36 hours in the remarkable Operation Solomon. In the haste to airlift the Beta Israel before Ethiopia’s capital was overtaken by rebels in the midst of a bloody civil war, some Ethiopian Jews were left behind in Addis Ababa along with a number of Falash Mura — some of whom were primary relatives of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Advocates claim the Falash Mura are Ethiopians linked to Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Christianity. Scholars, however, find no evidence that during the last century Beta Israel — true Ethiopian Jews — were forced to convert. What happened was that some Ethiopian Jews converted voluntarily to escape social and economic discrimination while others, in order to get an education, attended missionary schools. None were forced to convert. Those who did abandoned their faith.

The AAEJ advocated the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews who clung to their beliefs and withstood a cruel Marxist government, which from 1973 to 1991 punished and condemned as spies and traitors those Ethiopian Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel, the Beta Israel who braved the dangerous trek though Sudan’s deserts and swamps to reach Israel.

The AAEJ also assisted Israel in the negotiations leading to Operation Solomon. Our LaDena Schnapper was on the ground in Addis Ababa to help with the verification and transport of Ethiopian Jews in the dramatic airlift of May 1991. Those and other activities of the AAEJ are documented in “Black Jews, Jews and other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews,” by Howard Lenhoff.

What do the Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon say about bringing the Falash Mura to Israel?

A minority have held demonstrations in front of the Israeli Knesset in favor of bringing them to Israel. Others oppose bringing the Falash Mura but are silent, some for fear of physical harm from the pro-Falash Mura activists. Some doubt the sincerity and authenticity of the more militant activists in favor of Falash Mura immigration, many of whom we suspect are non-Jewish Ethiopians claiming to be linked to Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity.

When we began our campaign for Ethiopian Jewry in the 1970s, most American Jews did not identify with the black Jews of Ethiopia. But by the early 1980s they began to accept them as brethren once the Americans learned that the Jews of Ethiopia observed the Shabbat, revered Jewish law and customs as described in the Torah, and were reading the same Torah portion each Shabbat as did Jews all over the world — even though the Ethiopian Jews had been isolated from world Jewry for centuries.

These Ethiopian Jews, who risked their lives to preserve their Judaism and were rescued by Israel through Operations Moses, Sheba and Solomon, are true heroes who are rightfully distressed by Falash Mura immigration. They fear that once Israelis see Falash Mura praying in churches and attending Christian missionary schools and messianic “synagogues” in Israel, many Israelis will not recognize the common tie to world Jewry that Ethiopian Jews have: their love and practice of the Jewish faith.

Part of the confusion about the Falash Mura stems from the fact that various Israeli administrations have been inconsistent in their Ethiopian immigration policies. That inconsistency became particularly apparent in September when Israel, under pressure from U.S. Jewish groups as well as from vocal activists in Israel, reversed its decision of not accepting any more Falash Mura.

While we strongly believe that further Falash Mura immigration should be stopped, our major concern is for the welfare of those already in Israel and struggling to succeed.

There are nearly 50 lawyers, more than a dozen ordained rabbis and many professionals, technicians and university graduates in the Ethiopian Israeli community, but too large a proportion of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews live below the poverty line and are unemployed. Too high a percentage of Ethiopian students cannot read or write at the appropriate grade level, and the proportion of Ethiopian Israelis who pass high school matriculation exams is less than half Israel’s national average.

We hope the North American Jewish federations that raised more than $50 million for Ethiopian Jews in Operation Promise will urge Israel to apply what’s left of those funds to improve the living standards of Ethiopian Jews struggling to make it in Israel rather than to lobby for the immigration of those claiming to be Falash Mura.

(Howard Lenhoff and Nathan Shapiro are the former presidents of the American Association of Ethiopian Jews.)

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