Looking Past the Cry of Racism
Ethiopian Jewry presented a difficult problem for the Jews of Israel. The Jews of Ethiopia have a complicated past and many Jews are not sure if historically Ethiopian Jews were always Jewish, or if they are Christians who decided to keep the Bible literally. Aside from the adventures of a dubious Ethiopian merchant over 1,000 years ago and sprinkling of rabbis who came into contact with them over the last 1,000 years (most notably the Bartenura and Radvaz), there is little evidence of a large Jewish community of Ethiopia. Furthermore, the lack of historical documentation maintained by Ethiopia in general guarantees that we will not get to the bottom of this any time soon.
Were there a central authority in Judaism, the matter would be decided and ended, but we know that there is not. As a result, the rabbis asked that the Ethiopians convert, as a stringency, so that everyone is satisfied and they would be considered Jews. While this is a slap in the face to the Jews of Ethiopia who maintain their Jewish faith, it will help avoid a worse problem of different communities of Jews refusing to marry with them, and doubting the Jewishness of a child born of an Ethiopian Jewish woman, which would thrust a major rift into what unity there is among the Jewish people. It is the choice of the lesser of two evils; but if the simpler path is taken, then this entire matter would be settled after one generation.
Part of a genuine conversion is the guarantee that the one converting will keep the mitzvot. This means that all Ethiopian “converts” must go to religious schools. Were they to go to secular schools, even with additional religious instruction, the conversion would be doubtful, as the nature of the secular schools in Israel is vehemently anti-religious. This would bring us back to the horrible scenario of other Jews not marrying Jews from Ethiopia, causing a major rift among the people for centuries to come.
Many of the new immigrants from Ethiopia are not on par with Israeli students academically, meaning that their additional education will be a burden carried by the religious schools. Logically, they would need separate classes in order to get the immigrants up to par; and in a year or two, they would be fully integrated into the Israeli school system. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education calls this racism, even though all the other classes have a mix of White and Black students, as long as the Ethiopian immigrants in those classes are up to par academically.
So now you have the religious schools struggling to integrate students who cannot read or write, without the permission to do what is logical, nor significant funding to find the means to help these children. So what can be done?
There are two solutions to this problem. One is to simply attach a large grant from Ministry of Education to each Ethiopian immigrant child. If the Ministry of Education were to give schools extra money, based on the amount of new immigrants attending that school, and earmark the money for special education to help the students, the schools would have a much easier time accepting these students, and would probably run after them.
The other solution is to offer to send the Ethiopian students to secular schools. This would obviously go against the position of the Chief Rabbinate, which follows standard Jewish law and avoids the disastrous scenario in which Jews become divided. But in return for this chaos, there would be a new form of Judaism, one in which the general belief and cultural identity define a Jew, not actual Jewish law.
The insistence of the Orwellian Ministry of Education to push its agenda defies logic. They label religious schools racist for doing what is logical, while forcing them into a difficult situation that will only serve to hurt the sector most loyal to this country and its well being.
At the same time, this entire scenario, this battle of the ideal Israel, raises the most important question we have put off for over 60 years: What is the role of Judaism and Jewish Law in the State of Israel? And no, the status quo is not a real satisfactory answer.
So, the religious schools will suffer it out. In 10 years, when all Ethiopian Jews will be considered full-fledged Jews without a problem and Jewish law is maintained, we will look back and thank the Chief Rabbinate for holding its ground at a time when they could have satisfied everyone and pushed the problem down the line. In the meantime, the best thing we can do is support the Chief Rabbinate by voicing our opinions and letting them know that they are not alone.