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Jewish Journal

Beta Israel in Ethiopia face uncertain future on aliyah

By Don Futterman

July 3, 2008 | 11:30 am

At the center of the controversy raging about the possible end of Ethiopian immigration stand 8,700 relatively helpless Ethiopian Jews who want to come to Israel and an establishment led astray by its interior minister's misguided policy.

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the footsteps of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, has instructed his staff to find ways to continue the Ethiopian immigration, or at least the examination of the eligibility for aliyah of the remaining Beta Israel (as the Ethiopian Jews call themselves), Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit has decided that there are enough Ethiopian Jews in Israel. His ministry has packed its bags and recalled its staff.

The 8,700 Jews in Gondar who want permission to immigrate no longer have anyone to turn to, and on Monday, June 30, Sheetrit halted Ethiopian immigration altogether.

The leaders of North American Jewry, who have defied Israeli governments for 40 years to promote the Ethiopian and Russian aliyot, have inexplicably capitulated to Sheetrit. If the United Jewish Communities (UJC) go through with its plan to cut off all support for the Jews still in Ethiopia, it will sacrifice American Jewry's stature to the will of a minor league Israeli politician.

What of the Jews left behind? Most of the 8,700 Beta Israel awaiting aliyah left their villages years ago. Their neighbors have taken over their homes, and they have no place to return to.

They will now be permanently separated from their family members in Israel. They will lose the minimal support system they had: the synagogue, school, health services and food supplements funded through June 30 by the UJC and administered by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, local Jewish organizations and the Joint Distribution Committee.

Although there is no legal, moral or historic justification for ending the Falashmura immigration, there is no denying Beta Israel have stirred debate, most pointedly about their Jewish status. Beta Israel are descendants of converts to Christianity, similar to the Marranos in post-exile Spain.

They have only returned to Judaism and the Jewish people in recent decades, but their return has been accepted by established Jewish religious leadership across the board. Both current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and his predecessor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, have repeatedly and publicly declared that the Beta Israel are unequivocally Jewish. Israel's Orthodox establishment, as well as the world leadership of the Conservative and Reform movements, recognize them as Jews.

Beta Israel immigrants comprise more than 40,000 of the 110,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The vast majority have integrated into Israeli society, and young Beta Israel men and women currently serve in the Israel Defense Forces in significant numbers. To exploit the public's confusion in order to deny the consensus of their acceptance as Jews is underhanded and dishonest.

At the same time, Jewish identity is never simple in Israel. The rabbinate requires Beta Israel to undergo a symbolic conversion to eliminate any shadow of a doubt about their being Jews when they arrive. But rather than remove doubts, this practice has fueled opponents and helped lead to numerous abuses: The Beta Israel are not brought to Israel under the Law of Return but rather the Law of Entry.

Most Ethiopian Jews today have to pass a different eligibility test for aliyah than is administered to potential Jewish immigrants from any other country in the world. They have to prove matrilineal descent starting in the first generation.

Since 2004, there has been both a quota for Ethiopian immigrants -- 300 per month -- and an arbitrary cap on the total number of Ethiopian Jews to be allowed in the country. A census of potential immigrants was conducted in 1999 (and updated in 2003 and 2005) to allay Israeli government fears of an endless stream of Ethiopians showing up claiming Jewish ancestry, but then one-third of the people counted were arbitrarily set aside by the Interior Ministry and their status never considered. No other group of potential Jewish olim (immigrants) have had a quota or a cap imposed on them or were subjected to a census intended to prevent increased aliyah.

The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel geared up overnight to bring Argentinian Jews to Israel in 2001, when that country faced economic unrest, and more recently, to help French Jews fleeing outbursts of anti-Semitic violence. Is it possible that in 2008, Israel has one set of standards for potential Jewish immigrants with money and skills and another for impoverished and poorly educated black Jews?

It's not only possible, it's policy.

When the interior minister accorded himself the authority to override the chief rabbis and world Jewry in deciding who is a Jew, he overreached both politically and morally. North American Jewish leaders should be better able to recognize racial discrimination in all of its subtle forms.

If Sheetrit's program is not reversed, Israel will have abandoned its historic mission as a refuge for Jews in distress. For the UJC not to repudiate this policy with all of its intellectual and organizational vigor will be to turn its back on its Jewish and American heritage, not to mention the Jews of Ethiopia.


Don Futterman is Israel program director of the Moriah Fund, which has supported both Ethiopian-led organizations in Israel and organizations serving the Jewish community in Ethiopia for more than 15 years. This column originally appeared in Haaretz.

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