Critics See a Double Standard In Treatment of the Falas Mura

JERUSALEM — A major American Orthodox organization is urging the Israeli
government to bring to Israel 26,000 falas mura, or Ethiopians whose
ancestors converted to Christianity but who now want to move to Israel.

“We call upon the state of Israel to facilitate the rapid aliya of the
entire falas mura community…. In a phenomenon virtually unprecedented in
Jewish history, practically the entire community has adopted” a life style
in accordance with Jewish law, the president of the Rabbinical Council of
America, Rabbi Kenneth Hain, wrote in a recent statement.

The statement is raising questions about whether Israel is applying a
double standard, making it hard for Ethiopians who are living as Jews to
get to Israel at the same time as Israel is encouraging immigration by
Russians who are not Jewish. Conversions to Christianity generations ago
and family structures complicated by polygyny make the situation of the
falas mura a complex one, but activists working on behalf of the community
charge that there is a double standard. The minister of Israeli society and
the world Jewish community, Rabbi Michael Melchior, recently released
statistics indicating that roughly half of immigrants from the former
Soviet Union are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Yet even those falas
mura who keep Jewish dietary laws and observe the Sabbath are not currently
allowed to immigrate. Israeli practice is to process the immigration
applications of falas mura only at the request of any relatives they may
have who already live in Israel.

“Throughout history, the Jewish people, in accordance with halachah [Jewish
law], have joyfully welcomed back to the fold repentant Jews, including
those who have converted to another religion. The falas mura have eagerly
embraced a halachic way of life and are certainly entitled to be welcomed
to Israel under the Law of Return,” Rabbi Hain wrote. “Many falas mura,
probably most, had converted to Christianity. However, they rarely
intermarried and identified themselves and were identified by their
neighbors as part of the Beta Israel community.”

In other countries, those who wish to come to Israel under the Law of
Return or the Law of Entry apply at a local Israeli consulate. But there is
no such operation in Ethiopia. As the Rabbinical Council letter is
circulating, two other developments are in the works: Leaders of the United
Jewish Communities, the network of federations that raise $790 million a
year for Jewish needs, are planning to raise the topic of the falas mura
with Israeli officials next week, when the board of governors of the Jewish
Agency for Israel meets here. And the UJA-Federation of New York, the
largest American federation, is considering sending delegates to Ethiopia
to examine the situation for themselves.

In calling for the “rapid aliya of the entire falas mura community,” Rabbi
Hain’s statement is stronger than those put forth by many champions of the
cause, who argue that the falas mura should be processed for aliya, rather
than being simply flown to Israel, no questions asked. “They even go
farther than we do,” the associate director of the Jewish Community
Relations Council of Greater Boston, Barbara Gaffin, said. “We’re giving
the Israelis the benefit of the doubt in some way. We say that they should
be processed immediately.”

A member of the executive committee of the New York federation and the
director of Jewish communal affairs at the New Israel Fund, David Arnow,
said that he hopes that the Rabbinical Council letter will boost an issue
that American Jews have all but neglected. “The community, for reasons
which I cannot fathom, has been kind of immobilized here. The American
Jewish community has been pretty quiet on this,” he said. The New York
federation is “seriously considering” a trip to Ethiopia, “to see for our
own eyes and to move the issue forward,” Mr. Arnow said. “I think that
would be a really positive step.” The executive vice president of the New
York federation, John Ruskay, confirmed that such a visit “is under
consideration.”

Mr. Arnow stressed that a decision on whether potential immigrants qualify
under the Law of Return should hinge not on adherence to Orthodox Jewish
practice but on lineage. “In other parts of the world that’s how the law is
being applied,” he said. “The Law of Return exists for a particular reason.
Although there are discussions about changing it, until it’s changed, it
ought to apply fairly to everybody.”

Rabbi Melchior declined through a spokesman to comment on the falas mura
matter. The minister of absorption, Yuli Tamir, did not return several
telephone calls seeking comment for this story.

The president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston,
Barry Shrage, called the Rabbinical Council of America letter “a very
compassionate and brave statement.” “We have to have a standard that’s
applied equally in Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. And it’s not,” Mr.
Shrage said. Even if all of the 26,000 falas mura are not declared eligible
under the Law of Return, he said, “At the very least, the folks who are
there must be fairly processed.”

A Shinui Party Knesset member, Eliezer Sandberg, who is the chairman of a
parliamentary lobby on examining falas mura aliya requests, called Israel’s
refusal to do so “completely unreasonable.” “Papers have not even been
moved from one side of the table to another, which is completely
ridiculous,” he said. “I look into the mirror and think, if these people
who I see there [in Ethiopia], if their color was different and their name
is much more Russian, I think they’d be here.”

Those who oppose letting the falas mura into Israel argue that if the
26,000 who currently declare themselves to be part of this group were
admitted, there would be an endless stream of relatives and new converts
and no one left to turn the lights off in Ethiopia. However, a recent
survey supervised by the former director of the Interior Ministry’s
population administration department, David Efrati, reports otherwise.
“Past experience has clearly shown that immigration from Ethiopia and the
resulting family re-unifications have not caused a sudden increase in the
number of people joining Beta Israel [as the community is also called]
community circles in Ethiopia, which are well-known,” the census reports.

Mr. Sandberg said that a quick examination of the 17,000 falas mura living
in Addis Ababa and Gondar would demonstrate that about 10,000 of them are
indeed eligible under the Law of Return.

An adviser to Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, Louisa Valitsky, said that
next week, the ministry will send one official to Addis Ababa to start
processing falas mura requests and that she hopes two more officials will
ensure that the process is up and running within a month. The fact that
someone observes the Sabbath or the laws of family purity “does not turn
him into a Jew,” Ms. Valitsky said.

Another adviser to Mr. Minister Natan Sharansky, Vera Golovensky, said she
agrees with advocates of the falas mura that the 26,000 should be
processed, but she called “irresponsible” both Rabbi Hain’s statement that
the 26,000 should be brought to Israel and Mr. Sandberg’s comments about
the discrepancy between Ethiopian and Russian immigration. “I don’t know
where [Rabbi Hain] gets this information from. I would be fascinated to
know,” Ms. Golovensky said. “How did they become Jewish? They just started
practicing Judaism one day? They just converted? Who converted them?”

“If we’re going to deal with the falas mura under the Law of Return, then
they have to be dealt with as in any country, and the government of Israel
needs to make sure” that they have sufficient personnel in Ethiopia, Ms.
Golovensky said. “If this is humanitarian conditions, then it should be
brought to the attention of the rest of the world. But it’s not Israel’s
sole responsibility then.” She said, “Everybody agrees that not all 26,000
there are Jewish. The question of how many are eligible is disputable.”

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