Sharansky, in Addis Ababa, Feels Pain of the Falas Mura: Tests Ethiopians Who Hope To Immigrate to Israel

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — An army-green hat and corrugated metal roof shield
Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky’s head from the African sun, as
he addresses a crowd of more than 1,500 falas mura, or Ethiopians whose
ancestors converted to Christianity but who want to come to Israel under
the Law of Return.

“I hope we’ll succeed as quickly as possible in bringing all Jews to the
land of Israel,” Mr. Sharansky proclaims from atop a wooden platform. The
translation that follows yields applause from the crowd gathered to hear
him speak — the men in knit skullcaps decorated with Stars of David, the
women covered with shawls and holding babies.

What may not be clear to Mr. Sharansky’s audience, who represent the 8,000
falas mura based in this city, is the fact that by the time the Interior
Ministry is through processing their applications, relatively few of them
— perhaps 25% or 30% — are likely to qualify.

If that is the case, the pain that ensues will have ramifications not only
here but in America, among American Jews who have taken up the falas mura
cause — such as the Ethiopia director of the North American Conference on
Ethiopian Jewry, Andrew Goldman. Mr. Goldman guides Mr. Sharansky around
the stone-studded dirt paths of the compound.

All three streams of American Jewry have taken positions of varying
forcefulness in asking Israel to take in the falas mura. Recently, the
Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America called for the “rapid aliya of the
entire falas mura community.” Prior to Mr. Sharansky’s trip to Ethiopia,
the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, said in a statement: “The Jews have always
been a people committed to mercy…. We have faith that the state of Israel
will continue in this tradition and will manifest values that serve as a
beacon of light to other nations.”

Entering a classroom, Mr. Sharansky quizzes the assembled children in
Hebrew. “Who knows Hebrew here?” he asks the rows of students sitting on
wooden log school benches. Mr. Sharansky finds a taker in Tamasga Abraham,
who answers the minister’s questions in Hebrew. “My name is Tamasga. I am
14 years old.” Mr. Sharansky crouches down to hear Tamasga’s softly spoken
answer: that he has learned Hebrew every day for two years, and that he’s
been in Addis for three. Before Mr. Sharansky leaves the classroom, each of
the students holds up a single roll and says the blessing over the bread.
The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which is funding this
compound and one in the northern Gondar region to the tune of $700,000 this
year, provides each student with a bread, a fruit, a vegetable and a
protein every day. The organization started serving food when students
began fainting from hunger during class, Mr. Goldman says.

Inside the painted metal walls of one classroom, a teacher lists the 12
tribes of Israel for a group of first-graders — one of whom is 26 years
old. The most huggable, a 9-year-old who scrupulously copies from the
chalkboard, sports a single tuft of hair on his forehead, just past the
loosely crocheted yellow skullcap. The hairstyle comes from a combination
of two fears — one practical, the other spiritual. A lot of hair is
fertile ground for lice, but one needs some hair to ward off evil spirits,
the thinking goes.

While Mr. Sharansky is being led around the compound, the chief operating
officer of the UJA-Federation of New York, Misha Galperin, slips away,
taking a translator. The No. 2 man at America’s largest federation, or
local fund-raising body, Mr. Galperin canceled his ticket to Washington and
headed for Ethiopia when he heard about the delegation last week. Upon
returning, he reported back on his experience to American federation
leaders via a conference call this week. Mr. Galperin selects a young man
with beads of sweat on his face who is sewing a ritual fringed garment near
the entrance of the compound. He asks how long the boy has been here, where
he came from and where his family is. “All of your family is in Israel?”
Mr. Galperin asks incredulously. “Yes.”

“The issue of who’s Jewish is even more complicated than I thought,” Mr.
Galperin says. “Even if people look very Jewish” — with skullcaps,
phylacteries, prayer shawls — “it’s very clear it’s not very deep.” Mr.
Galperin acknowledges that a mission of federation leaders, an idea the New
York federation was considering — could even be misleading. “You come and
you see real need,” he says. “If people want to come, I think that would be
fine, as long as they get a real, balanced picture.”

Real need is what you see when you visit the 10-square-foot room where
Eneyesh Ayalew, 78, and his wife, Semegne Alemu, who says she is 65, pay
about $10 a month to live, together with three grandchildren. The room is
one of three in a complex made of mud, dung and straw. There is no window,
and a single yellow light bulb dangles from the ceiling. They say they will
not be using the small coal stove shoved in a corner — they have no money
for food. The neighborhood children, who have crowded into the room, vouch
for the fact. “We are witnesses” to the hunger, they say.

Knowing there would be visitors, Mr. Ayalew spent the day carrying in hand
a prized possession that usually hangs from a nail on the wall — as does
his pinstriped suit jacket, blue umbrella and plastic bags full of rags
that function as clothes. It is a framed picture of a young man in Israeli
army uniform, carrying a gun: one of the couple’s five grandchildren who
live together with their mother in Israel. To hear Mr. Ayalew tell it,
there is no reason why he and his wife have not been admitted. There was a
synagogue in their village of Durge, in the Chilga region, and “I didn’t go
to the church. I went to the synagogue,” Mr. Ayalew says. He denies that he
or anyone else from his family converted. “My family, both sides, are
Jewish. I know from the beginning that I was Jewish,” he says from beneath
a black canvas cowboy hat that bears the words “USA.”

Soon, Mr. Ayalew and Ms. Alemu will be able to tell their story directly to
Interior Ministry officials, who will then investigate the matter, a
process made difficult by the lack of documentation. As of this trip, Mr.
Sharansky has resolved to change the current state of affairs, in which
Ethiopian aliya must originate from a request in Israel, and to both
increase the size of the Israel-based staff working on the matter and send
a small staff to Ethiopia to deal with requests as they come in. Within a
year to a year and a half, he says, he wants to have firm decisions for all
of the applicants, so that they can either come to Israel or resume their
lives without false hopes.

One issue of contention will be how seriously to take the return to Judaism
that many of the 26,000 falas mura proclaim. In the hut where the soldier’s
picture normally hangs, Stars of David drawn in white chalk adorn the walls
— the work of the neighborhood youngsters. Fekredis Ashagri, 10, explains
the choice of design. “Because this is a Jewish house — to keep Jewish
culture,” she pipes up, inspiring a chorus of “Shalom,” Hebrew numbers and
even a singing of “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem. How many American
Jewish 10-year-olds can give such a performance?

When Knesset members Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party and Yuri
Stern of the Yisrael Beteinu Party visited last week, they examined the
fringes that peek out from faded shirts and Adidas jackets, checking
whether they conformed to Jewish law, observers said. Messrs. Orlev and
Stern returned to Israel convinced that nearly all 26,000 falas mura are
part of the Jewish people and that most of those who want to come should
not only be processed immediately but brought to the Jewish state.

Mr. Stern says he feels sure that the falas mura will be brought to Israel
— the question is whether it happens now or only after a crisis like the
sort of famine that is ripping through southern Ethiopia. Given the fact
that most falas mura are both of some Jewish origin and have close
relatives in Israel, Mr. Stern says, “I see an immediate reason for us to
be actively involved in what happens with them.”

Mr. Sharansky is indicating that he intends to read the Law of Return
strictly, in a way that would render ineligible those who converted to
Christianity, and stick to specific criteria as to which relatives are
permitted. The case of the falas mura “is really the test case of whether
it’s possible in the time of globalization…Israel can survive as a
country of the ingathering of exiles,” Mr. Sharansky says. To Mr. Goldman
of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, though, the
ingathering of exiles means the ingathering of the falas mura. “The people
who have seriously returned to leading Jewish lives are Jews, and therefore
eligible under the Law of Return,” he says.

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