Ethiopian Aliya Cap Threatened

A special investigation by The Jerusalem Post has discovered thousands of heretofore unknown potential olim in the Ethiopian hinterlands, posing a potentially serious problem for Israel’s plans to end mass Ethiopian aliya by the end of 2007. In just one of the rural areas visited by the Post during it’s investigation, in Ethiopia’s Achefar region, there appear to be at least 1,000 and possibly more than 2,000 “Beta Israel” households, each with up to a dozen children. With indications that equally large communities of Beta Israel, known in Israel as Falash Mura, exist elsewhere in Ethiopia, the number of potential olim in Ethiopia easily could reach 50,000.

That would throw a monkey wrench into Israel’s plan to cap the number of olim from Ethiopia at 20,000, a figure set by the government at a cabinet meeting in January. Already, some 16,000 Ethiopian migrants from rural areas are awaiting aliya in shantytowns in Addis Ababa and Gondar, and thousands more have emigrated to Israel over the last decade-and-a-half. “We will go to Israel if there is someone who will take us,” said Mane Mekonnen, a woman in her mid-50s from the village of Jankeet Mariam, in Ethiopia’s Gojjam province. “Nobody has come to register us. It is out of lack of choice that we stay here.” Mekonnen spoke with the Post on market day in the village of Ismallah, which she had reached after a two-hour walk from her home village. She said there were about 50 to 60 Beta Israel families in her village, and that two of her grandchildren live in Israel.

The Post’s special investigation, which consisted of a series of interviews and expeditions conducted over several weeks, spanning three continents, and including meetings with dozens of Israeli government officials, Jewish aid workers, and Ethiopians in Israel and Africa, will appear in full in tomorrow’s UpFront, the Post’s Friday magazine. If the newly discovered Falash Mura in Gojjam province petition for aliya – as many told the Post they would like to do that could derail the decision by the Israeli government and the agreement between the Jewish Agency and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (Nacoej) to end mass Ethiopian aliya once and for all with the emigration of those awaiting aliya in Addis Ababa and Gondar. “There will be no end to this,” one Israeli official involved in the process warned.

A similar plan to end Ethiopian aliya in 1998 was foiled when thousands of rural Falash Mura poured into Addis Ababa and Gondar after Israel brought what it then heralded as the last planeload of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. At the time, the Beta Israel population awaiting aliya in Gondar and Addis quickly ballooned from near zero to more than 17,000, according to a census conducted a year later. “There is hardly any professional who deals with this issue who believes that an all-encompassing decision like this can close the story,” Ami Bergman, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) representative in Israel, said of the government’s plan to end Ethiopian aliya.

The JDC provides those awaiting aliya in Gondar and Addis Ababa with medical care, and Nacoej runs compounds in the cities that provide schooling, food and adult Jewish education. Nacoej officials told the Post that its expedition to Achefar coincidentally happened upon the only significantly sized Beta Israel community remaining in rural Ethiopia, and that the Post consequently had a distorted picture of how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia. They also said the average household in rural Ethiopia actually is much smaller than it appears, given that many homes are occupied by lone widows or elderly couples. But other aid officials, including Israelis, said such explanations were poppycock, designed to mask the fact that there is no foreseeable end to Ethiopian aliya.

Compounding the problem is lingering controversy over whether or not the Beta Israel remaining in Ethiopia are Jewish. In contrast to the Beta Israel who emigrated to Israel before and during Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, those known as the Falasha, who observed many Jewish customs and knew of their Jewish heritage – the Beta Israel remaining in rural Ethiopia, known in Israel and America as Falash Mura, show virtually no signs of being Jewish. Almost without exception, the dozens of Falash Mura interviewed by the Post said they grew up practicing Christianity, knowing nothing about the Land of Israel, having never heard of the Torah and observing no Jewish customs. Most of those who have migrated to Gondar and Addis Ababa have since learned from American Jewish aid groups there that they need to be Jewish to immigrate to Israel, and they have adopted Jewish observances.

But many Beta Israel, particularly in rural villages, continue to maintain Christian practices. Some are even Christian Orthodox priests. Bodies advocating for their aliya, like Nacoej, argue that these people are Jews whose ancestors adopted Christianity under social or economic duress, and they ought to be considered Jewish. Until recent decades, Ethiopia was governed by a feudal system in which Beta Israel were considered a lowly caste and were forbidden from owning land. Even after large numbers of them converted to Christianity, Ethiopian Christians still were reticent to marry them until relatively recently, some experts say. Partly on the basis of this history, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has ruled that the Falash Mura are Jewish, though they still require them to convert upon their arrival in Israel.

Their eligibility for aliya is determined on the basis of whether or not they can prove Jewish matrilineal descent – criteria set by a government decision to bring them under the Law of Entry, which in this case sets stricter standards than the Law of Return. The Interior Ministry conducts the qualifying investigations. But after so many generations of Christianity and intermarriages, the difficulty of determining whether the Beta Israel left in Ethiopia are Jews is compounded by the fact that they themselves know nothing of their Jewish lineage.

Most Beta Israel living in rural Ethiopia have no idea they have a religious heritage distinct from Christianity – if, indeed, they come from Jewish bloodlines and view their Beta Israel appellation as nothing more than designation of caste. “I never heard of Beta Israel who don’t pray in a Christian church,” said Mebratu Chekne, 65, a Beta Israel community member from a village called Ande. “We just heard recently about Israel. We heard Israel looks out for its own and they give them money and try to bring them home.” “A lot of people have gone to Gondar. But we don’t have someone who is collecting us, who is taking care of us,” he said. “Nobody has come and asked about us.”