Israel is set to reunify hundreds of families that were separated in the drawn-out emigration of Ethiopians who are rediscovering their Jewish roots.
The move is being met by cheers in some quarters, and, as with many other issues in Israel, cries that it was politically motivated in others.
A government committee has approved a plan to bring 1,000 members of the Falash Mura community, whose forebears converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Israel has already welcomed tens of thousands of Falash Mura over the last 25 years, but has been lambasted by the community and its advocates for leaving behind around 8,000 people, including some whose children already made the move.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just announced that 12.5 percent of these people will be brought to Israel, and described the Falash Mura as a “precious community, which is part of our people and part of our state.”
They will move to Israel based on a special provision — not under the Law of Return — and convert to Judaism upon arrival.
The Jewish Agency’s new chairman, Isaac Herzog, welcomed the decision, calling it a “step in the right direction,” and promised to push hard for the rest of the Falash Mura to be brought in. Many are waiting in or around special compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa where they study Hebrew and prepare for emigration. There, they are supported by — among others — the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and the U.S.-based Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry.
Menachem Waldman, an Israeli rabbi who travels regularly to Ethiopia and serves as a spiritual leader to the Falash Mura, said that it’s a “basic expectation of Jews to bring other Jews to Israel.” Given the harsh conditions in Ethiopia, he said that bringing them is a matter of “pikuach nefesh,” performing a life-saving act.
He said: “The people are very strong in a sense, and they have been waiting for many years. But many people have suffered and continue to suffer while waiting, and some have died.”
Like many supporters of Falash Mura immigration, Waldman believes that Israel should have acted faster, and has expressed disappointment that decisions have been delayed on various occasions.
Ethiopian-born Knesset member Avraham Neguise, who spearheads the campaign for Falash Mura immigration, welcomed the latest decision but vowed: “Our struggle will continue.”
Neguise is a member of Israel’s ruling Likud party. He has been campaigning for the Falash Mura for years — and since he was elected in 2015, has pushed the issue hard in Knesset.
But some Ethiopian Israelis feel that Neguise and his supporters are keeping the Falash Mura on the agenda long after those with genuine connections to Judaism have moved to Israel.
“I don’t understand this decision of the Israeli government,” said Danny Adeno Abebe, an Ethiopian-born Israeli journalist, who has written articles lambasting Israel’s acceptance of Falash Mura, and even claimed that there is “no greater lie than theirs.”
Adeno Abebe, who is currently an emissary in South Africa for the Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror, argued that it is “very comfortable” to claim that those waiting to move are Jews, but he stressed that it isn’t true. “This is economic ‘aliyah,’ not because they are really Jews.”
He argued that “Netanyahu knows they are not really Jews,” but plans to bring them because of “politics,” and also claimed that the Falash Mura issue is driven in part by American Jews who want to prove their multicultural credentials by supporting aliyah from Ethiopia without understanding the background of the people they want to emigrate.
In the mainstream Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, some of the kessim, religious leaders, have mixed feelings about the 8,000 people waiting to move to Israel. “There is clear information that there are those who have Jewish connections and those who do not,” said Samai Elias, a kes who lives in Rishon Le-Zion.
There have been “a lot of mistakes” in assessing who has Jewish connections and who doesn’t, and he argues that Israeli representatives don’t adequately defer to the local knowledge of kessim.
Waldman insists: “There are very easy checks to make, and the Interior Ministry has all the information about the people.”
Israel organized various waves of Falash Mura immigration — in 1993, 1998, 2008 and 2013 — on each occasion believing it was the last cohort. Some officials and politicians believe that however many Falash Mura move to Israel, there will always be more claiming Falash Mura heritage and asking to immigrate.
But Waldman claims that the strong imperative to bring the 8,000 people currently waiting to move is the fact they have relocated to be close to Jewish centers, and spent years studying Hebrew and Judaism. He believes that once they are in Israel the mission will be complete.
He believes that 8,000 is a small number of people for Israel to absorb. Through Jewish history, communities welcomed returnees, but given the same opportunity, the Jewish state is being lethargic, he claimed, saying that this is “unbelievable.”
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.