A Falas Mura Guide for the Perplexed

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April 1, 2000
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Barbara Ribakove Gordon

The Falas Mura dilemma is extraordinarily complex, raising questions that fall into religious, legal, social, economic, and Zionist arenas. I will briefly indicate some of the most important questions to consider in this issue of Sh’ma, and comment on a few of the arguments. It is appropriate for me to say at once that I am not an unbiased observer but rather an active participant in the effort to sustain the community in Ethiopia and to persuade Israeli officials to speed up their lethally slow examination of Falas Mura claims for aliyah.

Are the Falas Mura Jews? Yes, according to religious law, halachah, as interpreted by some prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel and North America, as well as by leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements in the U.S. (see Joseph Feit’s article). Are they thus eligible to make aliyah at once? No, because the Law of Return excludes anyone who converted out of Judaism (see Mike Rosenberg’s article). Is that the end of the matter? No, because under the Return to Judaism program–designed by a committee of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate–thousands have formally converted back to Judaism. In any event, the Law of Return admits a Jew’s non-Jewish spouse, children or grandchildren, making thousands of Falas Mura eligible, as are thousands of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (see Micha Odenheimer, Yuli Tamir, Feit).

Eligibility and Jewish status aside, should the Falas Mura be considered shameless opportunists who converted out of Judaism only to get a better life and now want to return only to better themselves again? Yes, according to Shlomo Mula. No, according to Ephraim Isaacs, who delineates the extreme pressure affecting conversion and states that many Ethiopian Conversos remained secret Jews, a contention not accepted by Odenheimer. Feit holds that many Falas Mura did not lead “recognizably Jewish lives” in the past but that this is irrelevant to their return as longstanding Jewish tradition welcomes returnees to the fold unconditionally: “Israel who sins is still Israel.”

Why is Israel so slow in processing Falas Mura claims? Odenheimer alone offers an explanation: “because they are poor, African, and uneducated–and because of our abiding suspicion and animosity toward Jews who converted to Christianity.” Avraham Neguise provides painful examples of eligible Falas Mura who did not survive the long wait. Yuli Tamir, Israel’s Minister of Absorption, demands action by the Ministry of the Interior.

What is the responsibility of Diaspora Jews to the sufferings of the Falas Mura in Ethiopia? None at all, says Mula. Neguise blames the low level of American charity on “discouragement” by the government of Israel. Tamir, who in other media has stated that Israel’s ability to absorb Ethiopians is so limited that more should not come unless American Jews agree to pick up the tab (a proposal Stephen Solender rejects), does not mention this issue in Sh’ma. Rather, she speaks movingly of the horrors the community undergoes in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Feit says that considering the welcome historically offered to returnees, it is hard to understand why the Joint “refuses to provide even the minimal level of assistance that they gave in the past” and questions the “indifference” of the UJC.

Now, a few comments: Shlomo Mula’s diatribe against anonymous Falas Mura who supposedly “mocked… denounced…and robbed” Ethiopian Jews during their exodus through Sudan is hard to substantiate as he offers no names, dates, locations, or other evidence. But even if such incidents did take place, guilt cannot be assigned to an entire community of thousands, scattered over hundreds of miles of mountains and forests, for the putative actions of a few. This rumor-mongering approach is all too common among opponents of Falas Mura aliyah and should be supported by evidence or abandoned. Yuli Tamir’s compassionate picture of Falas Mura suffering is accurate in all but one commonly mistaken detail: the Falas Mura do not live in “transit camps.” Rather, they live in the appalling slums of Addis Ababa, and the miserable little shanties of rural Gondar. While there are no transit camps, there are compounds run by NACOEJ in each area, offering accredited schools and meals for thousands of children, simple synagogue space, adult education, and food distributions to families. In Addis, there is a paid employment program for over 800 families, whose embroidered products are marketed in North America. In Addis there is also a mikvah, built like most compound structures by community volunteers. NACOEJ aid is admittedly inadequate to prevent severe suffering, but the Joint, with far greater resources, has steadfastly refused to increase their level of medical care or provide housing stipends as they did in the past. The crowding Yuli Tamir speaks about takes place in the unheated, unfurnished, unsanitary, leaky hovels in which as many as 20 people huddle without even adequate blankets or mattresses. Some have no shelter at all. Unless the organized Jewish community of the Diaspora provides additional funds, the suffering and dying will no doubt continue and increase until Israel at last responds to the urgent demands of its own citizens and North American Jews to check credentials and act upon them.

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Barbara Ribakove Gordon is a founder and executive director of NACOEJ, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

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