Gondar and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Despite their tenuous ties to Judaism, Israel has already brought in 8,000 Falas Mora from Ethiopia. Now thousands more have given up their homes and are clamoring to immigrate. Should they, too, be welcomed?

EVEN AS ISRAEL BEGINS fulfilling its moral obligation to bring home Ethiopia’s last, desperate Jews, it faces a frighteningly difficult moral dilemma: Whether to the allow the immigration of another 19,000 people who claim Jewish descent – many of whom have already left their homes in expectation of aliyah.

In late June, 11 Israeli Interior Ministry officials made their way to Gondar in northern Ethiopia to speed the immigration process for the 3,500 Jews of the isolated Quara region – left behind after 1991’s Operation Solomon and waiting ever since to join their brethren in Israel. That, it seems, should be the last chapter of Ethiopian Jewish history. But there’s a painful epilogue: Thousands of Falas Mora – Ethiopians whose Jewish families converted to Christianity decades ago, 8,000 of whom were allowed into Israel between 1991 and 1998 – continue to pour into Gondar from their villages, eager to return to Judaism and fly to Israel. Their right to repatriation is made ambiguous by the fact that their ancestors were pushed, but not forced, to convert. Israel must decide whether to open its gates to people whose ties to the Jewish people are tenuous – whether it can say no to people who have given up their homes and their pasts.

To complicate matters, hundreds of local Christians with no Jewish roots are resorting to any means – from fraud to bribery to rape – in hopes of joining the Falas Mora ranks and leaving the poverty of Ethiopia. Preying on their desire to infiltrate the community, for instance, con artists from among the Falas Mora have sold many of them counterfeit versions of the membership cards issued by the community, claiming that the fake papers will allow them to join aliyah flights.

The desperate effort by some Ethiopians to add their names to the list of Falas Mora is at least partly the result of news that a major survey of the Falas Mora population, organized by Israeli experts and pro-Falas Mora groups, has nearly been completed. Falas Mora advocates hope it will serve as the basis for renewed immigration, and prove that the Falas Mora are a well defined group and that fears of an ever-widening circle of immigrants are groundless. The survey project, headed by David Efrati, former director general of Israel’s Interior Ministry, proves what Falas Mora advocates have contended for years: that a significant percentage of those waiting in Addis and Gondar are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Some have a Jewish parent or grandparent in Israel – often a Falas Mora who has officially returned to Judaism; others can prove they have one Jewish grandparent. The survey’s initial results indicate that there are 19,000 Falas Mora left in Ethiopia – 8,000 in Addis, 4,000 in Gondar, and the rest in villages in the Gondar and Gojam regions of the country’s north and center. And yet even for those Falas Mora with the clear right to aliyah under the Law of Return, reaching Israel is still nearly impossible. For in contrast to its policy every-where else in the world, Israel refuses to accept any requests for aliyah from Ethiopian citizens. Instead, it issues invitations, based on requests of relatives already living in Israel At best, this policy stems from the desire to prevent a feared uncontrollable wave of immigration; at worst, it is simple discrimination against Ethiopian potential immigrants. Either way, immigration from Ethiopia has been reduced to a trickle in the past year.

Clouded Past

The story of the Falas Mora began in the 19th century, when European Protestant missionaries targeted Ethiopian Jews. Their efforts largely failed – until the great famine of 1888-92 wiped out two-thirds of Ethiopian Jewry, including much of the spiritual leadership. After that, missionaries began to make inroads. Under the rules set by the Ethiopian monarchy, the missionaries were allowed to steer the Jews to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Although no evidence exists that Ethiopian Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, the incentives were considerable, especially under the constant threat of famine: They included the chance to obtain land to farm, most of which was owned by the church and was off limits to Jews. To this day, therefore, the question remains: Did the Falas Mora abandon Judaism, or just do what they had to do, in order to survive in desperate times?

Some of the converts integrated into their Christian surroundings. But many others are still seen by their Christian neighbors as “Falashas” – the derogatory term meaning “intruders” that is used for Jews. Most of the Falas Mora – a term of unclear origin for the converts – still practice traditional, low-caste “Falasha” trades: blacksmithing, weaving, pottery-making – and few have intermarried with the surrounding Christians of the Amhara ethnic group. The aversion to intermarriage was mutual: Christian Ethiopians saw it as beneath them to marry former Jews – until, that is, being Jewish offered the opportunity to leave for Israel.

Many Falas Mora kept up uneasy contact with their Jewish relatives; when they were invited to weddings or funerals, a special hut would be built in the Jewish village for the Christian relatives, who were not allowed into the Jewish homes. At times, Ethiopian Jews fleeing danger would hide out among Falas Mora relatives. But the old ties haven’t always promised safety: Some Jews complain that Falas Mora turned them over to the authorities when they were attempting to leave illegally for Israel, via Sudan, in the early 1980s.

Making the link to the Jewish people all the more tenuous is the lack of any evidence that the Falas Mora were, Marrano-style, secretly practicing Judaism. And when an Israeli government delegation including Rabbi Menachem Waldman and Dr. Israel Kimche traveled to Falas Mora villages in 1992, they found the villagers “immersed” in Christianity, and counted at least 15 Falas Mora Christian priests. And yet, despite their religious practices, their ethnic identity as Beta Yisrael – Ethiopian Jews’ name for their community – was never lost. At least some Falas Mora – although apparently very few – came to Israel via the Sudan, in the first wave of Ethiopian emigration that culminated with Operation Moses in 1984-85, and simply blended in.

Perhaps inspired by that exodus, some Falas Mora still in Ethiopia returned to Judaism in the late 80s, guided by kessim – who instructed them to fast for a week, eating only chickpeas and drinking only water, a purification ritual identical to that which Ethiopian Jews demand of converts. When nearly all remaining Jews came to Addis Ababa prior to Operation Solomon in 1991, 2,800 Falas Mora sold their possessions and came too. In a last-minute decision, Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir decided not to include them in the airlift – despite appeals by then-chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and former chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who based themselves on the halakhic principle that “a Jew who has sinned remains a Jew” and conversion to another religion isn’t binding.

Shamir’s decision was a fateful one. It meant that the North American Conference On Ethiopian Jews (NACOEJ) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – who’d fed the Jews awaiting aliyah and ran a school for them in a compound near the Israeli Embassy in Addis – continued to maintain the compound, now providing aid to the Falas Mora. Menachem Waldman – rabbi of Nir Etzion, an Orthodox community near Haifa – began to run programs there to teach Judaism to the Falas Mora. It wasn’t the unique Judaism of Ethiopia, with its paschal sacrifice and intense emphasis on ritual purity, but Israeli, Ashkenazi Judaism of the religious Zionist, crocheted skullcap variety – the kind they’d need after aliyah, if they ever got the chance.

Meanwhile, a sophisticated Falas Mora lobby developed in Israel, uniting some of the strangest bedfellows in Israeli political history, determinedly led by Avraham Neguise, founder of the advocacy group South Wing to Zion and himself a one-time Ethiopian Jewish convert to Christianity with ties to missionary groups. Neguise, who came to Israel in 1985 after returning to Judaism, built a coalition that included figures from the Israeli far right such as settler leader Hanan Porat, and Yehudah Etzion, who was once jailed for attempting to blow up the Temple Mount. At the same time, he garnered support among left-leaning groups and individuals such as the New Israel Fund and former Supreme Court justice Haim Cohen. The religious rightists saw bringing a lost tribe home as a step toward the final redemption; the left-wing supporters saw it as a fight against racism. International human-rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who’d defended Natan Sharansky during his Soviet trial, was also an ally. Eventually, Cotler used his contacts with Sharansky – by now a minister in the Netanyahu government – to help broker a breakthrough for the Falas Mora.

A Partial Solution

Back in Ethiopia, the number of Falas Mora in Addis kept growing, and only a few were being allowed to immigrate. By June 1997, there were at least 5,000, and pressure – including protests and lawsuits by South Wing to Zion, along with Sharansky’s intervention – resulted in the government’s decision to bring them all to Israel. In return, NACOEJ was asked to close up shop: Israel feared the compound could attract more villagers. The group agreed. Over the next year, the 5,000 Falas Mora in Addis were airlifted to Tel Aviv.

But in June 1998, with that exodus just about over, a letter was brought to the Israeli Embassy in the Ethiopian capital. It was signed by representatives of 8,000 more Falas Mora, fresh from the villages, who said that they’d arrived in the city – and wanted to come to Israel. The Israeli government was furious, and accused NACOEJ and South Wing to Zion of bringing the new group of Falas Mora to Addis as soon as the old group was safely in Israel. Neguise and the director of NACOEJ, Barbara Ribakove, were even accused by some officials of being secret Christians, and aiming to help other Christians infiltrate Israel – a charge that was never substantiated. NACOEJ and South Wing countered with their own claims: the new Addis Falas Mora, they said, had been forced out of villages by “anti-Semitic pogroms.” Falas Mora had been murdered, their cattle slain, their thatched homes burned to the ground by Christian neighbors. A JDC team sent to investigate these claims found them baseless. The JDC claimed that what NACOEJ had interpreted as “pogroms” were actually isolated incidents of violence and were the result, not the cause, of the Falas Mora exodus. They’d happened, for example, when houses were sold to more than one person, or business deals reneged upon. The claim of pogroms seems to have been hysterical exaggeration. But conflict over scarce land is chronic in Ethiopia. Larry Thompson of Refugees International, who was hired last year to research and write a report on the Falas Mora by the Moriah Foundation, concluded that Amhara Christians have been trying to grab back land that the Falas Mora obtained after the Communist revolution in 1974.

Israeli diplomatic sources now admit that violence accompanied the latest Falas Mora exodus in some cases. Successive waves of Jewish exodus – in 1984, 90 and 92-97 – have raised expectations among Christian villagers that all “Falashas” will eventually leave Ethiopia and may have fueled disputes. But there’s no evidence of widespread persecution. In fact, interviews with Falas Mora suggest that the major reason that villagers left their homes was messages sent by their relatives in Israel – some of whom themselves waited in Addis for several long years, but were eventually allowed to immigrate. “My relatives called me to come, said that if I did not come now, I might lose my chance to immigrate,” is the most common explanation Falas Mora give for their exodus. Hope and Hunger in Gondar

A year ago, in July 1998, Israel announced it would no longer process immigration applications from Addis Ababa, but only from Gondar, where the Quara Jews were waiting. The word spread quickly, and a stream of Falas Mora began to arrive in Gondar city. By last month, their numbers had reached 4,000.

South Wing and NACOEJ, together with a local committee of Falas Mora, opened a compound in Gondar; like the one still operating in Addis Ababa, it features daily lessons in rabbinic Judaism and the fundamentals of Hebrew. Men put on tallitot and tefillin and wear small crocheted skullcaps. For a time, NACOEJ also distributed food; but for the past two months, the food aid has been cut off – to be resumed, NACOEJ director Ribakove told The Report, only when the swelling number of imposters have been weeded out. The desire of Christian Ethiopians to get on the Falas Mora list makes Gondar a dangerous place. There have been repeated reports of Falas Mora teenage girls being raped by men who believe that having a “Falasha” child will translate into a ticket to Israel. The Gondar police recently arrested 12 men and women who were selling false Falas Mora identity cards, or pretending to broker marriages to Falas Mora but absconding with the money before delivering the groom or bride. Daniel Seyoum, a respected member of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community, sent by the Efrati group to supervise the survey, got a shock when an old acquaintance from Gondar demanded to be added to the Falas Mora list. “But you are an Amhara Christian,” he exclaimed. The acquaintance pulled out a pistol. Seyoum left Gondar that night, under cover of darkness. Behind him remained the Falas Mora, homeless, their future uncertain, belonging nowhere.


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