The Ethiopian Diaspora

April 1, 2000
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Shlomo Mula

The Ethiopian Diaspora was virtually unknown until approximately 100 years ago. Ethiopian Jews did not know that there were Jews with white skin. They thought of themselves as Jews keeping the commandments of the nation of Israel. This Diaspora maintains characteristics unique to this community in distinction from other Diasporas.

It is true that Ethiopian Jews suffered greatly from anti-Semitism and oppression. They could not be landowners, and they did not have the right to vote. For generations, they could not be elected to offices of the central government in the Ethiopian kingdom.

Nonetheless, the Jews of Ethiopia guarded their religious heritage with utmost devotion and remained Jewish over the generations. They were willing to sacrifice their lives in order to keep their religious practices and return to the land of Israel. Within the last 150 years, a group of Jews decided, of its own free will, to convert to Christianity. These people are known today as the Falas Mura. They mocked the Jews, they denounced them, and some of them even robbed Jews who were on their way to the land of Israel.

At the point that the Jews decided to walk to the Sudan from the Gondar and Tigray regions in the hope of going to the Holy Land, the Falas Mura did not even consider this an option. On the contrary, not only did they not go, but they robbed the Jews who were making their way on foot to the Sudan.

The year 1990 brought a turning point in the desire of the Falas Mura to immigrate to Israel. Some of them even joined Jews in Addis Ababa, and a year later tried to make aliyah. The State of Israel refused to accept them, and rightly so, because their true identity was unclear.

What happened subsequently was that a handful of activists, agitating on behalf of the Falas Mura, succeeded in forcing the State of Israel to accept them. For the first time in its history, the State broke its Law of Return and brought immigrants into the country on the basis of entrance laws and gave them immigrant rights.

The question that necessarily arises from all this is: Should the State of Israel change its laws out of fear that it be accused of racism or should it remain steadfast in the face of differing international opinions and invest in the Jews of Israel? I would choose the latter.

In Jewish law, the following question is asked: Does a Jew who has sinned still remain a Jew? While this is a very important question and challenge, any self-respecting state must base its decision on common sense. The state must not, indeed it is improper to, make a decision based on transient political pressures because of concerns that its decision be perceived as racist or discriminatory.

At the moment, the problem of the Falas Mura is far from solved. I believe that many people who are unfamiliar with the facts are trying to advocate on behalf of the Falas Mura and even resort to bold-faced lies in order to change Israeli law.

The State of Israel and the Jewish people must arrive at a consensus and decide to undertake the appropriate investigations to determine who has the right to benefit from the Law of Return. It must tell those who are waiting that they are not eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return. Their problem must be solved in Ethiopia, and the State of Israel and the Jewish people have no responsibility toward them.

I have no doubt at all that the State of Israel and the Jewish people are prepared to unite eligible families, but Israel cannot afford to be open to any refugee who wants to come here. Furthermore, Israeli society is fragmented, even splintered, and it would not do to add oil to this fire.

Nonetheless, should the State of Israel fail to expedite the aliyah of those who are eligible under the Law of Return, it will have betrayed the Zionist ideal of its founders.

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Shlomo Mula is Chairman of the Movement for the Advancement of Ethiopian Immigrants. In the past, he was in charge of Ethiopian immigrant affairs at the Absorption Ministry. He is a member of the political party Yisrael Ba-aliyah and was a candidate for the Knesset in the last elections. Translated from the Hebrew by Susann Codish.

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