Beta Israel in Ethiopia face uncertain future on aliyah

At the center of the controversy raging about the possible end of Ethiopian immigration stand 8,700 relatively helpless Ethiopian Jews who want to come to Israel and an establishment led astray by its interior minister’s misguided policy.

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the footsteps of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, has instructed his staff to find ways to continue the Ethiopian immigration, or at least the examination of the eligibility for aliyah of the remaining Beta Israel (as the Ethiopian Jews call themselves), Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit has decided that there are enough Ethiopian Jews in Israel. His ministry has packed its bags and recalled its staff.

The 8,700 Jews in Gondar who want permission to immigrate no longer have anyone to turn to, and on Monday, June 30, Sheetrit halted Ethiopian immigration altogether.

The leaders of North American Jewry, who have defied Israeli governments for 40 years to promote the Ethiopian and Russian aliyot, have inexplicably capitulated to Sheetrit. If the United Jewish Communities (UJC) go through with its plan to cut off all support for the Jews still in Ethiopia, it will sacrifice American Jewry’s stature to the will of a minor league Israeli politician.

What of the Jews left behind? Most of the 8,700 Beta Israel awaiting aliyah left their villages years ago. Their neighbors have taken over their homes, and they have no place to return to.

They will now be permanently separated from their family members in Israel. They will lose the minimal support system they had: the synagogue, school, health services and food supplements funded through June 30 by the UJC and administered by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, local Jewish organizations and the Joint Distribution Committee.

Although there is no legal, moral or historic justification for ending the Falashmura immigration, there is no denying Beta Israel have stirred debate, most pointedly about their Jewish status. Beta Israel are descendants of converts to Christianity, similar to the Marranos in post-exile Spain.

They have only returned to Judaism and the Jewish people in recent decades, but their return has been accepted by established Jewish religious leadership across the board. Both current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and his predecessor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, have repeatedly and publicly declared that the Beta Israel are unequivocally Jewish. Israel’s Orthodox establishment, as well as the world leadership of the Conservative and Reform movements, recognize them as Jews.

Beta Israel immigrants comprise more than 40,000 of the 110,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The vast majority have integrated into Israeli society, and young Beta Israel men and women currently serve in the Israel Defense Forces in significant numbers. To exploit the public’s confusion in order to deny the consensus of their acceptance as Jews is underhanded and dishonest.

At the same time, Jewish identity is never simple in Israel. The rabbinate requires Beta Israel to undergo a symbolic conversion to eliminate any shadow of a doubt about their being Jews when they arrive. But rather than remove doubts, this practice has fueled opponents and helped lead to numerous abuses: The Beta Israel are not brought to Israel under the Law of Return but rather the Law of Entry.

Most Ethiopian Jews today have to pass a different eligibility test for aliyah than is administered to potential Jewish immigrants from any other country in the world. They have to prove matrilineal descent starting in the first generation.

Since 2004, there has been both a quota for Ethiopian immigrants — 300 per month — and an arbitrary cap on the total number of Ethiopian Jews to be allowed in the country. A census of potential immigrants was conducted in 1999 (and updated in 2003 and 2005) to allay Israeli government fears of an endless stream of Ethiopians showing up claiming Jewish ancestry, but then one-third of the people counted were arbitrarily set aside by the Interior Ministry and their status never considered. No other group of potential Jewish olim (immigrants) have had a quota or a cap imposed on them or were subjected to a census intended to prevent increased aliyah.

The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel geared up overnight to bring Argentinian Jews to Israel in 2001, when that country faced economic unrest, and more recently, to help French Jews fleeing outbursts of anti-Semitic violence. Is it possible that in 2008, Israel has one set of standards for potential Jewish immigrants with money and skills and another for impoverished and poorly educated black Jews?

It’s not only possible, it’s policy.

When the interior minister accorded himself the authority to override the chief rabbis and world Jewry in deciding who is a Jew, he overreached both politically and morally. North American Jewish leaders should be better able to recognize racial discrimination in all of its subtle forms.

If Sheetrit’s program is not reversed, Israel will have abandoned its historic mission as a refuge for Jews in distress. For the UJC not to repudiate this policy with all of its intellectual and organizational vigor will be to turn its back on its Jewish and American heritage, not to mention the Jews of Ethiopia.

Don Futterman is Israel program director of the Moriah Fund, which has supported both Ethiopian-led organizations in Israel and organizations serving the Jewish community in Ethiopia for more than 15 years. This column originally appeared in Haaretz.

VIDEO: A visit with the Jews of Ethiopia

A group from the Jewish Federation of Nashville went to visit Jews in Ethiopia who were awaiting aliyah.  This is their story

Spectator – A ‘Return’ With Echoes

Sonia Levitin’s musical, “The Return,” based on her novel of that name, revolves around Operation Moses, the mid-1980s airlift that brought most of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews to Israel. But in many ways, this tale of escape echoes the Holocaust in its descriptions of prejudice and massacres in a region of the world that has since endured a genocide in nearby Rwanda, the scourge of AIDS and, more recently, a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

If these Jews had remained in Ethiopia, there might have been a second Holocaust, a point implied in “The Return,” which will be presented as a work in progress in previews this weekend at the MET Theatre before a planned run in the fall.

The Holocaust allusion resonates for Levitin, who was 3 years old when her mother escaped Berlin with her three children in 1938. Her mother is the inspiration for the wise older woman of the play, Weizero Channa, who vows to see Jerusalem despite her failing health.

While Levitin’s novel, “The Return,” won the PEN Award and National Jewish Book Award, one might ask if this is apt material for a musical.

Levitin had never written a play or even lyrics before, but calls the musical the “most wonderful, creative form,” an egalitarian template that can depict and appeal to anyone.

The subject matter is especially topical at a time of national debate over immigration. The Falashas, of course, were immigrants, as well, and became Israeli citizens roughly 20 years ago.

The origin of the Falasha Jews is “shrouded in mystery,” Levitin says. Her score includes a song about the Queen of Sheba, said to be the matriarch of the Falashas, who likely gave birth to some of King Solomon’s children some 3,000 years ago.

Although the show — directed by Bo Crowell, with choreography by Donald McKayle and music by William Kevin Anderson — contains a fledgling romance, with Channa acting as matchmaker, the musical is mostly about the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Israel. Along the way, some are beaten; others are killed. But the immigrants’ spirit, embodied in the play’s title, cannot be extinguished or denied.

“The Return,” will be presented May 20, 3 p.m., and May 21, 7 p.m., at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave, Hollywood, (323) 957-1152.

Tracks of an Ethiopian Exodus

Until the late 1970s, very few Ethiopian Jews had ever wandered beyond the borders of their country and made it to Israel.

But in 1979, an insurgency in northern Ethiopia opened an exit route to Sudan, and thousands of Ethiopian Jews — who called themselves Beta Israel but were known to outsiders as Falasha — began fleeing the famine and war of northern Ethiopia on a journey they hoped would end in Jerusalem.

Along with thousands of other Ethiopians fleeing their country, which at the time was ruled by communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Jews settled in refugee camps in Sudan and waited for Mossad operatives to take them out.

For the first few years, those who were taken to Israel left in one of three ways. Some were given forged documents and put onto planes in Khartoum bound for Athens. Once in Europe, they then were quietly put onto planes to Israel. Others were moved from their Sudanese refugee camps at night to Port Sudan, where Israeli naval commandos put them onto clandestine naval vessels and then transferred them onto ships headed for Israel. A few were airlifted directly to Israel from the Sudanese desert on illicit flights.

A famine in Ethiopia in 1984 lent great urgency to the effort to rescue Ethiopia’s Jews, many of whom were dying of starvation and disease in refugee camps in Sudan while they waited to be taken to Israel.

In the covert maneuver Operation Moses, Israel began airlifting large numbers of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan’s desert beginning in November 1984. Leaks about the operation and growing risks forced its early end in January 1985, after more than 8,000 Jews had been brought to Israel in the space of just six weeks.

Thousands more remained stranded in communist Ethiopia.

For those left behind, life was harsh. During Mengistu’s 17-year reign, Ethiopian city streets were left riddled with corpses as a warning against opposing the government, bereaved parents were forced to pay for the bullets that killed their sons and suspected political opponents were imprisoned and tortured.

The Jews suffered no more than ordinary Ethiopians, but anyone who was suspected of trying to flee to Zion was tortured, imprisoned and often killed.

In the early 1990s, the tide turned in the war between the rebel Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government, known as the Derg, and in May 1991 rebel forces surrounded the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Israel, which had clandestine ties with Mengistu’s regime, feared that the TPLF’s anti-Zionist rhetoric and hostility toward Mengistu could lead to massacres of the Jews when the rebels took Addis, and quickly put together a plan to rescue the country’s remaining Jews. Israel pressed the United States to persuade the rebels to hold their positions on the hilltops around Addis for 36 hours while Israel airlifted more than 14,000 Jews out of the country.

The fall of Addis came just hours after the completion of Operation Solomon, on May 24, 1991.

In the end, it turned out that Israel’s fears were unfounded: The new regime in Addis Ababa proved itself friendly toward the Jews and forged strong ties with Israel.

After Operation Solomon, the only Ethiopians with Jewish ties left behind in Ethiopia were the Falash Mura — Ethiopian Christians whose progenitors were Jews who had converted to Christianity. Many of them sought to return to Judaism in a bid to emigrate, but Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, instructed his government not to accept them. Unlike those who had immigrated to Israel, Shamir noted, these Ethiopians were not identifiably Jewish and maintained Christian practices.

Israel’s policy gradually changed, however, and since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Falash Mura have moved to Israel — nearly as many as the Ethiopian Jews who made aliyah during and before 1991.

During these last 15 years, Ethiopia’s government has maintained a policy of open emigration, which is why no special operations have been necessary to bring the Falash Mura to Israel.

In the last decade and a half, led by rebel-turned-head-of-state Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s government has accelerated the pace of the country’s industrialization, improved its economy and so far prevented any repeats of the devastating 1984-85 famine that killed an estimated 1 million Ethiopians and struck hardest in Tigray.

And though the Ethiopian government remains a target of human rights advocates, including some in Israel, observers abroad say the Meles government’s excesses do not approach the scope of that of Mengistu’s Red Terror.

But since last May, when government forces shot to death dozens of people in Addis Ababa protesting disputed election results, there have been growing tensions between the Amhara elite who live in the center of the country, around the capital, and the Tigrean minority that runs the government.

There also has been increased international criticism of the Meles government, which had been a rare African darling of Western democracies.

Some American Jewish federation leaders visiting Ethiopia last week suggested that one reason for Israel to speed up the aliyah of the Falash Mura is political instability in the country. But recent political tensions notwithstanding, experts on Ethiopia say there is little danger of imminent collapse for the current regime.