The Promise of Exodus

Ashagray Zeleke is on the front lines of a war over Israel’s future. The local representative of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), Zeleke administers a compound in Addis Ababa where thousands of Falash Mura–Ethiopian Christians who claim Jewish ancestry–learn the rites of the faith while awaiting emigration to Israel. Leading a visitor through the iron gates, Zeleke proudly shows off Hebrew lessons in progress and a makeshift synagogue where 300 men wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls bow fervently before an ark inscribed in Amharic. “Some have been waiting a decade to leave for Israel,” he says. “They really feel Jewish inside.” There’s just one problem: according to many Israeli officials, barely 40 percent of the Ethiopians languishing in this compound have Jewish roots.

NACOEJ’s ambitions have ignited an angry debate in Israel that cuts to the heart of the Jewish state’s identity. Critics charge that the U.S.-based group, in an effort to spread Orthodox Judaism and beef up Israel’s Jewish population, is “manufacturing Jews”–luring Ethiopian Christians out of their villages, inflating the numbers of those it claims have Jewish ancestry and trading food and the promise of exodus for religious conversion. NACOEJ, which insists that all the Ethiopians in its compounds are Jews, has found an alliance with some powerful sectors of Israeli society. The Palestinian intifada
has drastically reduced the number of diaspora Jews interested in emigrating to Israel: the number dropped from 61,000 in 2000 to 21,000 last year. Amid fears that Muslims may soon outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories, some Likud Party leaders and religious right wingers see resettling the Falash Mura as one way of guaranteeing the strength of the Jewish population.

Early this month, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom announced that he would speed up the resettlement of 24,000 Falash Mura living in NACOEJ compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar in northern Ethiopia. That followed a statement last year by Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi that the Falash Mura were “complete Jews without any doubt,” and a decision by the Interior Ministry–then run by a leader of the Shas religious party–to admit the Falash Mura in accordance with Israel’s law of entry. That law allows for family reunifications as long as the prospective immigrant can show maternal linkage to Judaism.

But Shalom’s promise provoked a backlash from lawmakers who question the authenticity of the Falash Mura’s claims, and who argue that Israel can’t afford the speedy resettlement of thousands of destitute Ethiopians. Tzipi Livne, the minister of Immigrant Absorption, estimates that 10,000 of the 24,000 in the compounds will qualify for immigration and believes strict limits must be drawn. “You could have a chain of family members demanding to come in,” she says. “Where does it end?”

NACOEJ feeds, educates and provides free health care to the Falash Mura, and indoctrinates them in Orthodox Jewish rituals. In 1998 Israel reluctantly agreed to accept all 3,000 Falash Mura then in the two compounds, then ordered the Americans to shut down the facilities. Within days, however, thousands more Falash Mura poured in to replace them. Relations between NACOEJ and Israel have been strained ever since. Israeli officials, and some leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community, charge that NACOEJ aggressively recruits Falash Mura in rural Ethiopia. Unemployment is rife among the those who move into the compounds. “In villages they have respect. They’re not rich, but they farm, they are self-sufficient,” says Dani Abebe, an Ethiopian journalist for Yediot Ahronot. “They come to Addis and they have nothing.”

The committee’s former president, Joseph Feit, insists that NACOEJ makes no attempt to recruit villagers in rural Ethiopia. He says that the Falash Mura’s return to Judaism is heartfelt, and not motivated by material incentives, and accuses the Minister of the Interior of foot-dragging to avoid the burden of bringing in poor Africans. Livne says the government isn’t opposed to letting in Falash Mura, but she wants a strict vetting process to be put in place. After that, she says, NACOEJ must close down the compounds. That’s an order the committee has resisted before, and will likely resist again.

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