Israel and the Ethiopian Jews: ‘Homecoming’

To understand the roots of the marginalization of Ethiopian Jews, we need to begin with the historical struggle of the community to be recognized by the state as being part of the “Jewish collective.” The “Beta Israel” (literally “house of Israel”), as the community calls itself, sees itself as an integral part of the Jewish people demonstrating a centuries-old adherence to Jewish law and tradition. The community’s tradition means that its members have for generations dreamt of Jerusalem, to which they will emigrate “in due time.” As early as 1862 the important religious leader Abba Mahari proclaimed that it is time to return to Zion and led a group consisting of thousands from Gondar, by Lake Tana, to the Red Sea (BenEzer, 2002). This journey, however, was a failure. When arriving at the Red Sea after a long and difficult walk, Abba Mahari pointed his cane to the sea, the same way Moses had done according to the Bible thousands of years before him, but the sea did not part. Realizing that the time to walk to Zion had not arrived, the community turned back.

The first significant connection between the Jews of Ethiopia and those of Europe was established by Professor Jacques Faitlovitch, who in 1904 called upon the Jewish world to save Beta Israel from assimilation and annihilation. Four years later, Faitlovitch brought the Beta Israel community a letter of support and encouragement signed by forty of the world’s most renowned Jewish scholars of the time. In a letter exchange that developed as a result between the Kessim, as the spiritual leaders of the community are known, and world rabbis, the Kessim asked that rabbis be sent over to them to teach them the ways of the Torah (Shalom, 2011). This exchange can be seen as the seeds being sown for a future conflict to arise between the two spiritual establishments. After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Faitlovitch was able to convince the Jewish Agency, the quasigovernmental body charged with promoting immigration to Israel among world Jews, to support immigration of Beta Israel as part of the policy of “ingathering of the exiles” (Waldman, 1989). However, a more critical approach to these events sees the connection between European Jews and the Ethiopian community as a form of cultural colonialism that acted to

“tame the savage” by bringing black youngsters to the West so that they could absorb the essence of the so-called universal Judaism (BenEliezer, 2004).

Only a hundred years after Abba Mahari’s pioneering initiative, in the 1970s, were the conditions created to have the members of the community immigrate to Israel. A Halachic decree put forth by the chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 1973 played a crucial role in this development. Yosef recognized Beta Israel as Jews whose ancestry was traced to the tribe of Dan. He determined that the seal of estrangement from the Jewish people attributed to them was a direct result of their physical separation from the rest of the Jewish diaspora. To remove doubt about their Jewishness caused by their years of estrangement, the rabbinate decided to perform a symbolic conversion of the community members by having them all, women and men, dip in a ritual bath (a mikvah). The men were also required to undergo a ceremonial blood dripping as a kind of symbolic, retrospective circumcision (Corinaldi, 1988). As a result, during the second half of the 1970s, 5000 members of the community were brought to Israel by the Israeli navy.

However, only in 1977 did the government decide that Ethiopian immigrants were eligible for full rights of new immigrants under the repatriation law of Jews known as the Law of Return. Following that resolution, thousands of Ethiopian Jews embarked on an exodus to the Holy Land (BenEzer, 1992). Between November 1984 and January 1985, 8000 more Jews were brought to Israel in what was known as Operation Moses. Once story of the secret operation had leaked out, the operation was stopped immediately, as the Sudanese president Jaafar Nimeiri, whose country the immigrants marched to in order to be airlifted to Israel, feared the retribution of Arab countries. Many of the would-be immigrants turned back to Ethiopia, and it is estimated that some 4000 of them died in the desert during these walks. Following the closing of the border, the remaining Beta Israel members moved to an encampment in the capital of Addis Ababa awaiting permission to emigrate. In May 1991, in light of a civil war that had broken out in Ethiopia, the Israeli government airlifted 15,000 of them overnight to Israel in what came to be known as Operation Solomon.

Following the two operations the Israeli government had hoped that it had resolved the issue of aliyah (immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel) from Ethiopia, but it was quickly revealed that on orders from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir thousands were left behind in the camps in Addis Ababa, purportedly because they had been identified as members of the Falash Mura, a community asserting an affiliation with the Beta Israel, whose members converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century under extenuating circumstances.1 Under pressure from relatives of the Falash Mura and other social activists, Shamir’s successor, Yitzhak Rabin, initiated the welcoming of the first group of 3000 in 1993. This move led to a mass migration of more Falash Mura to the former Beta Israel encampment in Addis Ababa in anticipation of joining their brethren in Israel. Rabin’s government decided as a result to allow the immigration of those Falash Mura who had first-of-kin relatives in Israel. This policy, however, was not based on the Law of Return, but rather on a family unification policy, which basically meant they were not recognized as Jews and were not eligible to the same rights as new immigrants. In subsequent years, under mounting pressure from members of the community who were now living in Israel, more Falash Mura members were allowed to immigrate, yet their numbers were always deemed insufficient by the community activists who initiated demonstrations, petitioned the courts, and filed complaints with the state comptroller.2

A concerted and intensive lobbying effort since the mid-1990s has been pressuring the Israeli government to continue airlifting to Israel members of the Falash Mura who were camped in Gondar. It is estimated that since 1993 about 50,000 Falash Mura have immigrated, despite growing opposition of various experts and bureaucrats (Yaeger, 2007). Unlike the first wave of immigrants from Ethiopia, the Falash Mura have agreed to undergo a procedure of “return to Judaism,” which includes a complete conversion according to the halacha (the body of Jewish religious laws derived from the oral and written Torah) as well as educational activities (Goodman, 2008). Currently, 135,000 immigrants of Ethiopian descent live in Israel, including the Falash Mura, a third of whom were born in Israel.

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