Stranded In Gondar
Masaret Assafa, a Falash Mura who moved to Israel eight months ago, is praying his recently orphaned siblings will be permitted to immigrate as well. The last official flight of Falash Mura to Israel landed in Tel Aviv last Tuesday, and the fate of the rest remains uncertain.
Mevasseret, Israel – After waiting almost a decade to emigrate from Ethiopia to Israel, Masaret Assafa, who, along with his wife and two children, received the green light eight months ago, tries to focus on his new life in this pleasant absorption village just outside Jerusalem.
Assafa, 32, attends the intensive Hebrew-language ulpan and Judaism classes intended to prepare him and other Israel-based Falash Mura for life as Israeli Jews, but says his heart is still in Gondar, where his recently orphaned sisters and brothers wait for an Israeli emissary who may never come.
As his wife, Asmar, serves spicy coffee and homemade injira, a fluffy Ethiopian bread, in their tiny but cheerfully decorated one-bedroom apartment, Assafa admits that ” isn’t so easy in Israel. Being in a new culture, learning a new language is hard, but at least here we have food, clothing, a roof over our heads. I worry about my siblings every moment. Do they have enough to eat? Who is looking out for them? When will they be brought to Israel?”
The Israeli government’s announcement earlier this month that the Aug. 5 flight carrying Falash Mura out of Ethiopia would be its last has unleashed an outcry from some community activists and their supporters, who insist that thousands – even tens of thousands – of Ethiopians with Jewish roots should be brought to Israel.
But others within the Ethiopian community and outside say the vast majority of Falash Mura (Christians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity a century ago) are merely opportunists who want to immigrate to Israel for a better way of life, not because they care about Judaism.
The debate, which will decide the fate of thousands of Ethiopians, many of whom have relatives in Israel, is also creating a dilemma for diaspora Jews, who must decide whether to support continued aliyah, even if it means going against the wishes of the Israeli government and many Ethiopian Jews.
Within the Ethiopian community in Israel “there is a lot of disagreement over whether or not to bring more Falash Mura,” concedes Avi Masfin, spokesman for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. “Some say the Falash Mura were forcibly converted, and now that they have the chance to live as Jews, we should bring them to Israel. Others view them as Christians, not returning Jews, and say their families are the same ones who made it difficult for us back in Ethiopia, so why bring them?” One person who thinks Falash Mura aliyah should have ended years ago is Danny Adeno Abebe, an Ethiopian-Israeli journalist.
In a blistering JTA op-ed Abebe calls the Falash Mura “a collection of people looking for handouts trying to pass themselves off as Jews forced to forsake their Jewish faith.” He rejects as “nonsense” the claim that some Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity decades ago.
Other Ethiopian Jews as well as some American Jewish organizations share views closer to that of Yaffet Alemu, a Conservative rabbi who loudly advocates continued Falash Mura immigration. Sitting in the Assafa family’s living room, Rabbi Alemu insists that there has always been anti-Jewish feeling in Ethiopia and it continues to this day.
“Everyone in Ethiopia considers [the Falash Mura] Jewish because they left their villages believing Israel would bring them home and now they have nothing. They have nothing to go back to, and they would face persecution and death if they did.”
Micha Feldman, who was the Jewish Agency’s top expert on Ethiopian affairs for many years and who served as Israel counsel to Ethiopia, agrees that the Falash Mura are in a bind.
“They left their villages and their livelihoods to go to Gondar or Addis, almost always at the urging of family members in Israel, not the Israeli government, and are now dependent on Jewish organizations and the Israeli government,” Feldman says. “They made their own decision to leave, but since then their land has been taken by other families. There’s also the issue of the Ethiopian ‘Code of Honor’: You don’t return to a place you left. Doing so would be humiliating, and it’s not done.” But Feldman flatly rejects claims that Israel is employing a racist double standard when it comes to the Falash Mura.
“The only group Israel went far beyond the Right of Return for is the Falash Mura,” Feldman says. “If a family converted to Christianity five generations ago and lived as Christians all those years, they cannot claim at least one Jewish grandparent,” the criteria for the Right of Return law. The fact that successive governments have tried to be sensitive to the Ethiopians? all-encompassing view of what constitutes a family “proves that Israel is not racist,” Feldman says.
Acknowledging that Falash Mura immigration cannot go on indefinitely (“there will always be more who want to come”) Feldman, who works with SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center, says the Jewish Agency and other bodies that have supported Ethiopian aliyah have, in the past, discussed ways to help those left behind.
While Israeli officials, under intense criticism, have indicated some willingness – though no promises – to screen another 8,700 Ethiopia-based Falash Mura on a case-by-case basis, the United Jewish Communities (UJC) and other Jewish organizations are grappling with how to meet the needs of the group.
On Tisha b’Av, the Conservative movement launched a campaign to raise funds to feed the nearly 9,000 Falash Mura who relied on UJC food programs after these programs were discontinued on June 30, at the request of the Israeli government.
UJC officials say they are aware of the humanitarian problems exacerbated by their organization’s monthly $68,000 cutbacks, and are discussing the matter with their leadership.
While politicians and fundraisers debate the pros and cons, Masaret Assafa waits for his five orphaned siblings in Gondar.
“My mother died waiting for her dream to be fulfilled,” Assafa says forlornly, staring at a family portrait. “Will the same thing happen to my brothers and sisters?”