A controversial immigration issue that just doesn’t go away

The Falashmura’s immigration saga began with Operation Solomon in May 1991. A looming civil war and possible victory for Ethiopia’s Marxist rebels prompted the Shamir government, in a massive one-time airlift effort, to bring all 15,000 Jews in Ethiopia to Israel. Clarification of eligibility was sought, but the hoards of people congregating around Israel’s embassy in Addis Ababa and claiming the right to immigrate to Israel included thousands whose status as Jews was in doubt – Falashmura, whose families converted to Christianity a few generations ago. Jewish Agency officials in charge of the operation and the kessim (the community’s religious leaders) with whom they consulted opposed including the group. Various other pressures on then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir did not help.

Even before Operation Solomon, perhaps a few hundred Falashmura had arrived in Israel along with other immigrant Ethiopians. At the time, they were not viewed as belonging to a separate group. Because they became visible to the public only after the operation, some observers, mainly in the establishment, have suggested that the Falashmura were in no hurry to immigrate under the highly risky circumstances surrounding Operation Solomon, but only jumped on the bandwagon when staying in Ethiopia became more dangerous than leaving. Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a longtime activist for the Falashmura, says that even before Operation Solomon, there were Falashmura immigrants, although very few in number. “It was only natural in that dangerous situation that the ones who came were the more daring people, firmest in their identity,” he says.

A more basic issue surrounding the group, however, is its historical background. Prof. Steven Kaplan, who teaches Religious and African studies at Hebrew University, is a student of Ethiopian Jewish history. The community does not descend from the legendary Queen of Sheba, he hastens to note. A second and equally false myth on which support for the halakhic (Jewish law) status of Ethiopian Jewry has been based is that the community descended from the Tribe of Dan, exiled with the 10 tribes of the Assyrian Exile, about 150 years before the destruction of the First Temple and the Judean exile.

“Ethiopian culture in King Solomon’s time was para-historical,” says Kaplan. “That people traveled from there to the Land of Israel is most unlikely. What happened in Ethiopia was something else: Christianity arrived in the fourth century AD, parallel to the influence of Jewish tribes living in the Arabian peninsula. A unique Christian culture was born, with strong biblical underpinnings from the outset. Many Christians in Ethiopia were circumcised and kept the Sabbath,” he continues. “About 500 years ago, Ethiopia conquered some tribes that rebelled against Christian hegemony and returned to a Jewish identity, insofar as it was known to them. That was the seed of Beta Israel (those who later kept their Jewish identity).

“In time, the people of Beta Israel came under pressure to abandon their Jewish identity, and over many generations, they did so. The pressure increased with the advent of colonialism and European missionaries, who opposed an amalgamation of Christianity with Judaism.”

Kaplan says that the converts to Christianity who were influenced by missionary pressure, especially strong since the mid-19th century, comprise the historical antecedents of the Falashmura. He will not commit himself to the meaning of the name, but believes that Falasha, the name given to all Ethiopian Jewry, comes from the Hebrew palshu (invaded, squatted), and refers to the fact that, as Jews, they were denied land of their own and became nomads, while mura comes from the Hebrew for convert.

Kaplan does not believe their conversion was forced. “At almost no stage were the Jews forced to convert,” he says. “It was certainly much easier to live as a Christian, especially since Jews were landless.” Nor do Falashmura supporters deny these facts; they just interpret them differently. Abraham Negusa, director-general of the Kanaf Darom Letzion (Southern Wing to Zion) association, which has been coordinating the Falashmura immigration struggle, says “they didn’t force people to become Christians, but in the tough conditions for Jews back then, it bordered on compulsion.”

A different life

In some places, the converts continued living separately: no longer Jews, but with no ties of marriage to the Christian population. Waldman explains that the converts continued to live apart in some areas, while they were more integrated in other areas. Still, both he and Negusa admit that the converts did not assimilate further mainly because they were still viewed by others as Jews.

The Beta Israel kessim opposed bringing to Israel, via Operation Solomon, those who had given up their Judaism. For the same reason, some Ethiopian activists opposed the Falashmura’s immigration when the issue first arose after the operation. This viewpoint, however, is rarely heard now. Waldman thinks it is because “even the kessim have been persuaded that the Falashmura seriously intend to return to a Jewish way of life.” One young Ethiopian activist believes that the main reason is “the general attitude of the community to the state has changed. People feel that the state has badly hurt even those who remained steadfast Jews, so why exert themselves to `defend’ the state from the Falashmura?” And anyway, he says, there was terrible pressure, even threats, against community members who dared express public opposition to Falashmura immigration. Not coincidentally, establishment figures who oppose immigration for the Falashmura voice their opinions anonymously.

The fact that there are still many close family ties between the converts and those who kept the embers of Judaism alive has been the main rationale for bringing the Falashmura to Israel since Operation Solomon. Activism on behalf of the Falashmura has created an odd coalition. On the one hand there are various national-religious “Age of Redemption” adherents, like Waldman, who view the return of the Falashmura to Judaism as the first step in the ingathering of the 10 lost tribes. On the other hand, secular leftist activists identify with the Falashmura struggle as part of their support for human rights in Africa. These groups have been joined by American Jewish activists, who have ultimately provided the main financial and political backing for the Falashmura through NACOEJ (North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry). The organization’s director, Barbara Gordon-Ribakove, notes that the NACOEJ was established in 1981, “when we didn’t yet know about the Falashmura, to identify in general with the Jews of Ethiopia and support their immigration to Israel. After Operation Solomon, when the problem became known, we went to Ethiopia. The rabbis told us that they should be viewed as Jews, and that’s how we saw them, and we thought their living conditions were intolerable.”

Among the Israeli establishment that has been involved in the issue, some members contend that NACOEJ activists encouraged the Falashmura to leave their villages and gather in Addis Ababa to pressure the Israeli government to bring them here. Gordon-Ribakove, however, denies this heatedly. “Not only did we not encourage them, but also we saw ourselves as responsible only for the humanitarian problem created by those who had already left on their own initiative. We were in continual contact with the Israeli embassy, and at the ambassador’s behest, we agreed that we and the Joint [Distribution Committee] would take responsibility for the humanitarian assistance. A date was set in advance, and only people who arrived at the camp by then received our aid.”

The pictures of thousands crowded together in terrible conditions, along with political pressure applied by NACOEJ and the Falashmura’s friends and family in Israel, began to have an impact. Shortly after Operation Solomon, an inter-ministerial committee was set up under then-cabinet secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, which decided to bring the Falashmura, who were packed in a transit camp, to Israel on the condition that they “return to Judaism” before leaving Ethiopia. But the Ethiopian government opposed any mass conversion on its soil, which they saw as “Jewish proselytizing,” and the prerequisite of conversion in Ethiopia was dropped.

In 1992, the Rabin government set up a new ministerial committee headed by then-absorption minister Yair Tsaban. The committee decided on individual entitlement under the Law of Return, which gives Jews, their children, spouses and grandchildren automatic immigration and citizenship privileges. Family reunification for first-degree relatives would also be permitted on humanitarian grounds. The immigrants would still be required to “return to Judaism,” this time in Israel.

Indeed, conversion to Judaism – supposedly before leaving an absorption center – remains an integral part of the absorption process for Falashmura immigrants. Someone already in Israel cannot be forced to convert; technically, no one can condition someone’s immigration rights on the completion of a conversion process. In practice, however, immigrants have complained about absorption center directors’ trying to deny them rights on these grounds.

Most converted

The vast majority of adult Falashmura immigrants are thought to have completed their conversion process, whether because it was understood to be an inseparable part of their absorption, because they really intended to “resume” a Jewish way of life, or because it seemed wise: a convert could bring the rest of his extended family to Israel under the Law of Return. Only two years ago, Rubinstein, as attorney general, decided this right would henceforth apply only to children born to immigrants after their conversion. He allowed those who submitted applications for immigration under the old criterion to benefit from the status quo ante. Some observers think the renewed struggle of the Falashmura in recent months emerged from this eligibility criterion issue.

Meanwhile, based on the opening given by the Tsaban Commission in 1993, many Falashmura congregated in Addis Ababa and Gondar hoping to immigrate quickly. The struggle continued through 1998, and then, pressed by an appeal to the Supreme Court, the Netanyahu government decided to bring to Israel everyone at the Addis Ababa transit camp without worrying about the criteria. This was expected to be the last such effort on behalf of the community, and was intended to end the problem once and for all. Moshe Leon, then-director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, even wrote a letter to the American Jewish organizations asking them to stop humanitarian aid at the camp in order to discourage any more would-be immigrants. Some 4,000 people were then brought from the camp to Israel, and were replaced almost immediately by new claimants. Humanitarian aid continued.

In 1991, Falashmura supporters initiated preparation of a precise list of community members seeking to immigrate. The 62,000-name list was drafted under the supervision of a public committee headed by David Efrati, former head of the Interior Ministry’s Census Administration. Efrati says that investigators did not reach all the Falashmura villages “for fear of their lives,” but interviewed those waiting in the camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar. “By systematically cross-referencing all the testimony, we received consistent data on people in the villages that we didn’t visit.”

Some Israeli establishment figures have their doubts about this data, contending that “when it was agreed to `dismantle’ the Addis Ababa camp in 1998, that was supposed to be the last claim, too.” Negusa says that “we aren’t dealing with the last list of immigrants, but with dismantling the camp in Addis Ababa; more people arrived there in the interim, because they realized that after it was dismantled, the camp at Gondar would also be dismantled. When that didn’t happen, people came streaming in to the capital, because they thought they’d have to be allowed to immigrate” from there.

How are the Falashmura faring in the Ethiopian community in Israel? Today, the entire community numbers about 88,000 people. About 65,000 of them are thought to be immigrants while the rest were born here. Since Operation Solomon, about 24,000 people have immigrated from Ethiopa – about 4,000 were from Kuwara who belonged to a recognized Jewish group, which for some reason was “forgotten” during Operation Solomon, and the rest were Falashmura. And if another 19,000 Falashmura are brought to Israel, as activists are demanding, nearly half of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel will be comprised of this group.

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