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Veteran Ethiopian Israeli Community Divided on Falash Mura’s Immigration

February 28, 2006
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Overlooking the panorama of Jerusalem’s Old City at twilight a group of Ethiopians teenagers argue whether or not the Falash Mura community should be brought to Israel en masse. “If they are Jewish, why not?” says Sharon Balata, a 16-year-old from Ashdod. “But no, they are Christian,” protests her friend Yardena Yamrashet, 18, from Rehovot.

Balata pauses then shoots back, “The more Ethiopians there are in Israel the better, right?”

Yamrashet remains unconvinced. The Falash Mura, who are now returning to their Jewish roots after their families converted to Christianity about 100 years ago, are considered an entirely different community by most of the veteran Jewish Ethiopians.

“We don’t feel a connection with them, we just don’t know them,” said the trendy Yamrashet, her hair dyed blond and teased into an Afro.

Israel’s veteran community of Ethiopian Jews, the bulk of whom came to Israel in the airlifts of 1984-85 and 1991, are still struggling to find their way in Israeli society. Battling poverty, crime among the younger generation and unemployment, some are wary of scarce resources going to the Falash Mura community instead of their own continuing absorption. Others welcome the Falash Mura as extended members of their own families and see political and social strength in the growing numbers of Ethiopians in Israel.

Currently some 100,000 Ethiopians live in Israel. The government’s plan is to expedite the immigration of 13,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura over the next two years. Some of the leaders of the veteran community had been outspoken against bringing additional Falash Mura to Israel but once the plan was approved by the government, the criticism on a public level has been largely muted.

Several prominent Ethiopian Jewish veterans refused to go on record with their views about the Falash Mura, citing the controversial nature of the issue within their community.

Rabbi Yosef Hadane, the chief rabbi for the Ethiopian Jews in Israel, said the controversy had mainly to do with confirming which of the new immigrants truly had Jewish roots.

“They want Jews to come, not non-Jews,” Hadane said.

He also said there were stark divisions between the communities when it came to religious practice. The veterans, for example, prefer to pray in the traditional Ethiopian language of prayer called Ge’ez while the Falash Mura pray in Hebrew. The Falash Mura will also often only eat food deemed kosher by the Chief Rabbinate while the veteran Ethiopians follow kashrut standards set by their elders.

The two communities, Hadane said, live fairly separate lives in Israel.

One young Ethiopian Israeli activist who declined to be quoted by name said he is concerned that there is no way to determine how many Falash Mura will immigrate ultimately. He blamed American Jewish groups for pressing the issue. “It is a matter of money. I think it’s the American Jewish organizations who have an interest in this,” he said.

A 21-year-old soldier who would only identify himself as Moshiko said he did not see the Falash Mura as part of his community. He did not think their commitment to being in Israel was the same. “I’m here because my great-grandfather wanted to come here. My family came by foot and my great-grandfather died on the way,” he said.

Adding to the sense of alienation are rumors circulating in the veteran Ethiopian community that some Falash Mura return to Christianity once they are in Israel, even attending church services. Suspicions have been heightened by rumors that Christian missionaries who falsely converted to Judaism are among those immigrating.

Members of the Falash Mura community in Israel say they are committed to returning to Judaism. Their ancestors converted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to Christianity.

At Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s open-air market, several stalls have recently opened selling Ethiopian products such as coffee and lentils imported from Africa. Aviva, a 24-year-old Ethiopian woman who would only give her first name, said she remembers a more intensive and welcoming reception when she and her family made aliyah 12 years ago.

Often, she says, members of the Falash Mura community will come to the stall where she works for help with writing letters in Hebrew to government offices and for general advice.

“If they are not taken care of, why were they brought here?” she asks.

At an Ethiopian restaurant and bar a few blocks away, veteran Ethiopians gather at the end of the day. Among them is a 23-year-old who calls himself Jimmy. He is bitter about his life, and says he does not understand why the country is contemplating bringing more Ethiopians here.

“We don’t feel like we are part of this society,” he said. “If the first and second immigration waves did not work, why should the third and fourth ones work?”

He works as a security guard, he says, “like every other Ethiopian you have ever met.” He then repeats a bit of immigrant humor, “They brought the Russians to clean the streets and the Ethiopians to guard the malls.”

Jimmy said he hopes to fly to Ethiopia in the next few months on a “trial visit” with a few other Ethiopian Israeli friends to see if, perhaps, their futures are there, instead of in the Jewish state.

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