Falash Mura Plight Stirs Support in U.S.

Perhaps no single party outside the Israeli government is as vital to Ethiopian aliyah as the American Jews committed to help paying for it.

So this month, when the United Jewish Communities (UJC) brought a group of 100 people from America’s wealthiest Jewish communities, including Los Angeles, to the straw-and-mud huts of one of the poorest countries on earth, it was a signal to the Israeli government that American Jewry is serious about its own role in bringing Ethiopians to Israel.

Now the question is what the members of the mission — including approximately 70 federation leaders, their staffers and family — are going to do with their newfound, hands-on familiarity with the issue of Ethiopian aliyah.

“Operating here in Ethiopia is extremely complex,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Fishel said his role is to help raise money. “Doing the aliyah is a whole other issue that I’ll leave to the experts.”

The picture presented to the group was both complicated and even morally ambiguous. For one thing, there’s a chance that Israel will back down from its prior commitment to the immigration of the Falash Mura, who are Ethiopians with ties to Judaism through their relatives or ancestry. Even with aid from U.S. Jews, Israel, in the long run, will likely have to foot most of the cost.

“There’s a 30 percent chance that [Israeli leaders are] going to revoke this decision,” said Joe Tauber, national chair of the fundraising campaign during a dinner at Addis Ababa’s Sheraton Hotel on the group’s last night in Ethiopia. “We’ll know within six months.”

In case they do renege, Tauber added, “I’d go back and talk to donors.”

Tauber’s cautionary note, along with the knotty problems with the aliyah that many observed in Ethiopia, prompted some federation fundraisers to say they would focus on UJC’s absorption programs in Israel when pitching Operation Promise to donors, rather than the idea of bringing more Ethiopians — as many as 20,000 more — to the Jewish state.

Another federation fundraiser from the East Coast said she would raise funds only for the absorption part of Operation Promise, because of personal misgivings about Israel’s criteria for immigrants from Ethiopia and management of the aliyah verification process.

But Israel’s commitment wasn’t the only issue. Some on the delegation could understand why critics question whether the Falash Mura should be considered Jews at all. Some Ethiopians are merely responding to an implied message of: “Come to Israel and convert to Judaism, and we’ll make things happen for you. Anybody in Africa would choose that,” said a federation official, who asked not to be named.

“I’m not sure I agree with, ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew,'” the official said. “I just have questions about the Falash Mura.”

Others said it was UJC’s historic responsibility to ensure that the aliyah takes place — and that it is successful.

“They want to be Jews,” said Meryl Ainsman, a federation official from Pittsburgh. “It’s a moment in history where we can continue to make mistakes or do the things that can really make a difference.”

So far, UJC has raised more than $45 million in pledges for Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign that includes $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption and $60 million for care of the elderly in the former Soviet Union. Participants pledged an additional $873,000 on the mission’s last day.

Without question, delegation members were taken aback by what they witnessed.

“I’ve never in my life experienced seeing the kind of poverty we saw,” said Julie Lipsett-Singer, an official from the Federation of Central New Jersey. “It was very startling and really altering to my psyche.”

Like many missiongoers, Lipsett-Singer said she was heartened when the UJC group returned to Israel and encountered so many successful Ethiopians and vital absorption programs.

“Many Ethiopians are giving back to the community,” she said. “I’m so much more hopeful and positive about the future.” Many federation executives said the operation to bring the Falash Mura to Israel was justified simply on humanitarian grounds.

“Out of this 20,000, let’s say [only] 10,000 will decide in the end not to be Jewish — so what?” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “If part of them convert to Christianity, Israel is filled with guest workers. Israel is a heterogeneous society.”

The key to the operation’s success, Shrage suggested, is not only bringing the Ethiopians quickly from Africa, but making sure that they are given the right kind of assistance to become productive Israeli citizens.

“It would be such a tragedy if this group of people lost faith in the Jewish identity and the Jewish state,” Shrage said. “We can produce out of this group many great Israelis, many great Jews. This does not have to end up a permanent underclass.”