Losing Lives in Ethiopia

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April 1, 2000
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Micha Odenheimer

First of all, my bottom line: The Falas Mura, and with them any Jews that may be left in Ethiopia, are being discriminated against because they are poor, African, and uneducated–and because of our abiding suspicion and animosity toward Jews who converted to Christianity. Ethiopia is the only country in the world where it is impossible to apply for Israeli citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return. Instead, an Ethiopian must wait for the Israeli authorities to review his or her case after relatives in Israel submit an aliyah application. And even if relatives do complete the necessary forms, a Falas Mura may well starve to death while waiting, for the process itself has been cruelly and systematically delayed by an Israeli bureaucracy insensitive to human suffering and determined to keep the immigration from Ethiopia down to a slow trickle.

If I were Israel’s Minister of Interior, I would immediately take the following steps: a) fire the people who have been in charge of Ethiopian immigration in the Ministry, as their behavior has sometimes bordered on criminal neglect, b) send a team of specially appointed consuls to quickly review the cases of all those waiting for aliyah; some will be eligible under the Law of Return or the Law of Entry, which provides for family reunification, c) offer those families who are not eligible for aliyah some assistance to begin anew their lives in Ethiopia; $1,000 per family, wisely spent, can go a long way.

Okay, now what about the murky, gray area? What about those families who don’t qualify, and yet refuse to give up? What about those questions that make the Falas Mura issue one of the most frustrating, fascinating, and complex stories of the 1990s? The answers to some of these questions are clearer than ever before.

*First of all, are the Falas Mura good Jews, proud members of the Beta Israel community, who were unfairly branded as Christian converts by evil Israeli officials? This is the version of events put forth until recently by some of the advocates for the Falas Mura, and I think we know enough by now to agree: Most Falas Mura really did practice Christianity. We are not talking about Marranos who secretly practiced Judaism, but rather about authentic converts. At least in some Falas Mura villages, Christianity was deeply rooted. And yet, it is important to recognize the array of forces and conditions that pushed the Beta Israel families to convert. They were aggressively missionized by Westerners who offered them land, medical aid, and an education for their children if they converted. Moreover, the spiritual leadership of Ethiopian Jewry was dealt a terrible blow during the last part of the 19th century, when a majority of the key scholars and holy men died during a period of famine. Many of the Beta Israel were thus left as sheep without a shepherd–and were therefore more vulnerable to the missionaries.

Although Jewish resist-ance to Christianity is one of the greatest acts of sustained collective courage in human history, the Torah tells us: “Do not take vengeance”–hatred can never be given a deciding vote. And truly, returning the Falas Mura to Judaism would perhaps be the best revenge possible on the missionaries who targeted them for conversion because they were Jews.

*Why have the Falas Mura gathered in Gondar and Addis Ababa? Was it anti-Semitic pogroms that drove them from their villages? Was it irresponsible Jewish organizations that drew them to the cities with promises of support and immigration? Neither of these theories hits the nail on the head. Although there were problems with Christian villagers, the Falas Mura advocates, it seems, misread the nature, extent, and the severity of the Christian hostility. Similarly, the Israeli government and the Jewish establishment blamed the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) and South Wing to Zion for causing Falas Mura to leave their villages and pour into Addis Ababa and Gondar. And yet, the dynamic that drew Falas Mura to the cities from their home villages began much earlier, when 3,000 Falas Mura came to Addis before Operation Solomon and were eventually brought to Israel. This encouraged another group of Falas Mura to camp out in Addis–and this group was eventually brought to Israel as well. Those who made it to Israel sent the message to their relatives in the villages: If you want to make it to Israel, the first step is to leave village life and come to Addis, or later, to Gondar.

Two last, critical questions. First, are there really only 26,000 Falas Mura in Ethiopia, or, if Israel takes in this group, will the circle suddenly widen, and will another 10,000 Ethiopians uproot themselves to camp outside the Israeli Embasssy? Here, I think it is of utmost importance that Diaspora Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians examine the findings of the 1999 Efrati survey, which states clearly that the Falas Mura are a closed circle. Let the professionals who supervised the survey explain exactly how they came to this conclusion. If the survey is convincing, it is of great significance. From the beginning, Israeli officials have based their argument against further immigration on the notion that the complicated web of family relations in Ethiopian culture meant that the more Falas Mura you took in, the more would be eligible. If this is not true, then much of the anti Falas Mura argument breaks down.

Finally, what effect will the influx of a large number of Falas Mura have on the Ethiopian Jewish community already in Israel, those who sacrificed so much to remain Jews? Will it weaken Ethiopian Jewish identity, corrode the sense of solidarity between Ethiopian Jews and other Jewish Israelis already challenged by poverty and alienation? Will some Falas Mura–perhaps a significant number–revert to Christianity once in Israel? These are concerns I hear voiced by some members of the Beta Israel community in Israel; there are not yet any answers. What is clear is that any decision to bring another 26,000 Falas Mura into Israel should be done in coordination with the Beta Israel leadership and grassroots community. It is those Ethiopian immigrants already here who will bear much of the brunt of integrating the Falas Mura into Ethiopian-Israeli society. Even more crucial: such a decision must be accompanied by a redoubled commitment to help the entire community move beyond the poverty and marginalization into which they have been thrust. The roots of renewal, empowerment and success are already present in the generation of students, activists, army officers, and artists: a small but growing minority among Ethiopian Jews now growing up in Israel. But there is still a long, long way to go, and the entire Jewish world needs to be a partner in this journey.

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Micha Odenheimer is a writer, rabbi, and activist living in Jerusalem. A reporter in Ethiopia during the year of Operation Solomon, he was the last journalist to interview Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam. Odenheimer was the founding director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews and now serves as their board chair. Odenheimer is a contributing editor at the Jerusalem Report.

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