JERUSALEM (JTA) — When an Ethiopian-born Israeli named Dessie finished his compulsory army service three years ago and made plans to travel to Thailand, India and Vietnam, he was hoping to embark on a spiritual quest.Like many young Israelis, Dessie felt a spiritual void in his life. Though he had studied four years in a religious high school in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood not long after making aliyah in 1992, he was not very religious. Dessie hoped he might find in East Asia some of the spirituality he felt was missing from a life in Israel consumed by partying and alcohol. “I was thirsty for God. I felt empty inside,” Dessie said. “That’s when I discovered Jesus.”Dessie, 25, now is a devoted member of Shalhevetya, one of a growing number of Protestant churches in Israel that bill themselves as messianic Jewish congregations and cater to Ethiopian Israelis.Some of the congregants are born Jews, others are Christians who have been part of the 15-year-old Falash Mura migration to Israel, and still others are Ethiopians whose Jewish origins are opaque and Jewish literacy virtually nonexistent. Recent Ethiopian olim are easy prey for Christian missionaries. They come to Israel with little knowledge of Judaism; some have Christian roots. Most practiced some form of Christianity in Ethiopia before filing their aliyah petitions and moving to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa.Some veteran Ethiopian Israeli leaders are warning that the ongoing Ethiopian aliyah is making matters worse, bringing to Israel many Christians who either are married to Ethiopians of Jewish origin or fraudulently claim to be related to Jews. “Today the aliyah of the Falash Mura has turned into a business,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Zagay, an Ethiopian Israeli rabbi in Rehovot and director of the National Committee of Ethiopian Jews, formed recently to combat missionary activity.The term Falash Mura is used to refer to Ethiopians of Jewish origin who converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures.Initially rebuffed as apostates when Israel decided some 30 years ago to facilitate the aliyah of Ethiopians who had kept their Jewish identity, the Falash Mura began to come to Israel legally after the government changed its policy in the early 1990s.”If they became Christians 150 or 200 years ago, I am in favor of their aliyah,” Zagay said of the Falash Mura, echoing the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s position that the Falash Mura are Christians of Jewish origin who are welcome back to the original faith of their forefathers. “But not all those coming are Jews. There are those who buy a Jewish identity, and those who sell a Jewish identity,” Zagay said. “The rich children of Addis Ababa prey on the Falash Mura and pay them to marry them, get to Israel, then divorce them and try to bring the rest of their families. “The problem is that after they come here, not only are they not Jews, they are actively missionizing. They are Adventists, Pentecostals and other Protestant groups,” he said. Zagay hosted a conference in Rehovot in February to address the problem. Other community leaders, like the Jewish Agency’s former director of Ethiopian immigrant absorption, Shlomo Molla, now head of the Department of Zionist Institutes at the World Zionist Organization, say the proselytizers are mostly outsiders, not Ethiopians. “This phenomenon exists in various sectors of the Israeli population,” Molla said. “I don’t think it’s connected to the Falash Mura. Unfortunately, missionaries succeed in penetrating the Ethiopian community. They operate on the periphery. They are not loved. They are not supported.”The Jerusalem church Dessie attends is run by Finnish Protestants, he said. It hosts a variety of community services; Sunday night is reserved for Ethiopians. Molla says claims that the Falash Mura are acting as missionaries rather than as the proselytizers’ prey are being spread to “cast aspersions on the Falash Mura.” His argument is bolstered by the fact that the vast majority of Ethiopian Christians, including any Christians among the Falash Mura olim, are Ethiopian Orthodox rather than from the Protestant sects involved in missionary activity in Israel. Most forms of Christian proselytizing are illegal in Israel. Rav Simcha HaKohen Kook, Rehovot’s chief rabbi, says the problem lies with an Israeli educational system that is sorely lacking when it comes to Judaic studies. “Despite the fact that opposition to Christianity is absolute in the Ethiopian community, there is great poverty, indigence and disrespect for elders in the community, and so the Ethiopians are easy prey for the missionaries,” Kook said. The missionaries “offer help and give money, and the Ethiopians don’t know Judaism, so it’s easier to get them,” Kook said. “This is a widespread problem with immigrants from many countries. If this does not become a national concern, to combat the missionary activity on a national level among Ethiopians, among Russians and among others, then we risk emptying the State of Israel of all its Jewish content.”But Zagay and some other religious leaders here attribute the problem to the Falash Mura themselves. Zagay says those who came in the early 1990s were legitimate Falash Mura — members of Christian families known to have Jewish roots — but most coming today are not. This has led to calls within Israel’s Ethiopian community to put the brakes on Falash Mura aliyah. Because it’s such a sensitive issue, however, few Ethiopian Israeli leaders are willing to speak about it publicly.”This aliyah is causing irreversible damage to the State of Israel,” one Ethiopian Israeli leader in Jerusalem told JTA. “These people aren’t Jewish. It is tearing apart the Ethiopian and Israeli community. “I want to put an end to this lie,” the leader said. “White Israelis are afraid of the charge of racism, so they continue bringing them. But if Israel brings people for humanitarian reasons, I prefer they bring the refugees from Darfur.” Even Israeli officials involved in the aliyah acknowledge that some of the Ethiopians arriving in Israel are not Jews, but they say the number is small. As it is virtually impossible for the Falash Mura to prove their Jewish provenance, they enter Israel under the Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate, rather than the Law of Return, which is meant for Jews. Once here, the Jewish Agency for Israel oversees their required conversions and teaches the Falash Mura Hebrew and Judaism. The controversy seemed far away on a recent Sunday evening as a few dozen Ethiopian Israelis quietly made their way to the Shalhevetya church near a fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem.Inside, congregants swayed to organ music, eyes closed, arms outstretched, Hebrew-language New Testaments on their chairs, singing songs to Jesus.
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.