Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Falash Mura Immigrants Find Rough Transition to Israeli Life

May 23, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Absorbing Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society has never been easy, but with the Falash Mura, the challenges are even greater.

Potential immigrants are allowed to come to Israel on the condition that they convert to Judaism and live their lives as observant Jews. They know this in advance of their arrival, and all agree. But few are aware of what this entails.

For example, the conversion process demands that all males — even circumcised ones — undergo a ritual of symbolic circumcision involving a small cut to the genitals. Many find this degrading.

They are also asked to remarry their spouses in a Jewish ceremony, a process that couples with children and grandchildren considered absurd.

If they do not undergo the entire process, the Falash Mura immigrants are denied fundamental rights such as social security and unemployment income.

Most of the 4,000 Falash Mura immigrants who arrived in Israel in 1997 and 1998 go to great lengths to demonstrate that they are practicing Jews.

They try very hard to shake off the derogatory term Falash Mura, and the Israeli staff at the Ethiopian immigrant community of Givat Hamatos has banned the word.

“We decided not to call them Falash Mura because this is a sensitive issue,” said Danny Dorani, manager of the Givat Hamatos site for the Jerusalem municipality.

“As far as we are concerned, they are immigrants from Ethiopia.”

Veteran Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are often not nearly as sensitive. The Beta Yisrael, or Ethiopian Jewish community, has for generations detested the Falash Mura, a community that they say abandoned Judaism while the Beta Yisrael stuck to their roots at great personal risk. Many look down on those who have returned to Judaism to come to Israel.

Meanwhile, Absorption Ministry officials say the absorption process is even more difficult than for other Ethiopian Jewish groups because most Falash Mura have spent an extended period of time waiting to depart for Israel in camps, where they did not work or fend for themselves.

“Our ministry is not ready for this long-term process financially, either,” said a ministry spokesperson.

The Jewish Agency for Israel agrees. “The main problem here is that it is still a tremendous task to absorb these people,” said Mike Rosenberg, director of the immigration and absorption department at the Jewish Agency.

“If they come faster, it means the problem will be even greater and our feeling is that the Jewish people around the world have an obligation to help.”

Recommended from JTA