Jews in Ethiopia: The Long Wait
Because their ancestors converted to Christianity 100 years ago, the Falash Mura’s road to Israel has been one of controversy—and determination.
Demelesh Worke, Yohala Takele and their three sons share a tiny, one-room hovel in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. They are among 8,000 so-called Falash Mura gathered there, waiting to immigrate to Israel. For the family, it has been seven years of living in this crowded slum. In their native village of Chilge in Gondar province, Worke was a tenant farmer and they lived in a tukul, a thatch hut, in the open countryside.
The family’s fate is part of a controversial 21st-century debate over Jewish identity. The dramatic Operations Moses in 1984 and Solomon in 1991 brought approximately 100,000 Ethiopian Jews, or Beta Israel (House of Israel), to the Jewish state. But the Falash Mura—a derogatory term the group does not accept; they see themselves as Beta Israel—were not considered eligible under the Law of Return because, according to tradition, about 100 years ago their ancestors had converted to or lived as Christians, usually for social or economic reasons.
There is no agreement on the origin of the term Falash Mura. Falash comes from the Amharic felese, usually pronounced falasha in English, a word meaning rootless or stranger that the general Ethiopian population uses to refer to Jews. Mura is more complicated. Some say it comes from the Hebrew lehamir, to convert. Others say it has to do with the name Mary, as in the Virgin Mary. Israeli activist Avraham Neguise says the Beta Israel secretly applied the term to those who had converted.
While Israel debated for years over their Jewishness, the group nevertheless streamed into Addis Ababa and Gondar city in the north to apply to immigrate. Finally in 2003, Israel’s chief rabbinate recognized the Falash Mura as Jews and the government agreed to admit them; so far, some 20,000 have already been ingathered. Those who can prove maternal Jewish ancestry are being permitted in under the Law of Entry, which allows for family reunification and humanitarian reasons; they will convert formally in Israel.
This past February, Israel reaffirmed its commitment to complete the ingathering by the end of 2007, increasing the monthly rate of aliya from 300 to 600. Currently, between 13,000 and 24,000 want to make aliya.
The decision to hasten their immigration came after mounting pressure from the Israeli Ethiopian community, many of them closely related to those left behind, as well as from Jewish Agency head Sallai Meridor and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American federations.
After 4,000 Falash Mura in Addis Ababa were transported to Israel in 1998, more of them streamed into the capital and Gondar city. They congregated near the Israeli Embassy and the compounds set up by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).
The compounds distribute food, provide schooling for children, a synagogue, lessons in Judaism and an embroidery employment project. Neguise, head of South Wing to Zion, a Falash Mura activist organization, said the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa and Gondar keep Shabbat and kashrut, though he can’t vouch for those still in their villages.
These would-be olim never imagined such a long wait to fulfill their dream, that in the meantime children would be born and old people would die.
They live in deplorable conditions. Worke and Takele’s home is so small that when they have visitors everyone must stand. Two beds—thin mattresses made of dried grass covered with plastic on makeshift wooden platforms—take up most of the room. There is no sink, toilet or running water. A laundry line hangs from the ceiling of wooden beams tied together with string; newspapers line the corrugated tin walls. The décor is magazine ads tacked to the walls. An orange plastic bucket full of coal sits on the dirt floor near a colorful hand-woven basket of injara (the staple Ethiopian bread). There are a radio and a child’s backpack, a few pots and another bucket containing onions and cabbage.
The room is lit by a single bulb, but there is no electricity after 10 P.M. The family pays 100 birr (about $20) a month for rent and also buys water from their landlord. A translator points to a plate of kolo, or dried chickpeas. “This is their dinner,” he said.
Despite the hardships, Takele’s spirit shines through. Her hopes? “To change the lives of my children, to educate them,” said the mother of three sons, 3, 7 and 9.
“Israel is our people so we want to go there,” explained Worke. “It is the work of God.”
Despite their distressed state, experts say the Falash Mura are among the best off in the country. Dr. Rick Hodes, who runs the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee medical clinic in Addis Ababa, quotes UNICEF’s annual statistics of 18 deaths per 1,000 Amhara (Ethiopians) and only 5 for every 1,000 Falash Mura.
“The Falash Mura are among the healthiest, best fed and best educated in Ethiopia,” said Rebecca Klein, an American archaeologist who is conducting the first excavations for Beta Israel culture. “You don’t have special schools and feeding centers for the Amhara.”
Why is this generation clamoring to come to Israel? Some say it is to escape one of the world’s poorest countries. Others insist their return to Judaism is real. Some Falash Mura themselves claim they always knew they were Jewish and practiced Judaism in secret at home.
Not everyone agrees. Danny Adino Abebe, senior correspondent for the daily Yediot Ahronot, speaks for some Ethiopian Israelis when he contends that “90 percent of [Falash Mura] have no connection to Judaism” and their aliya is a catastrophe for the Ethiopian Israeli community.
“There are maybe 5,000 who fall into the category of people whose ancestors converted to Christianity,” he added. “The rest are coming for economic reasons only. This only hurts our community. There were hard times? Why didn’t my grandparents convert?” Abebe is certain that when the current 20,000 are brought to Israel, another 20,000 will take their place claiming Jewish heritage and clamoring to come.
Once the aliya is completed, the compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar city will close (NACOEJ recently agreed to turn them over to the Jewish Agency) and any future immigration will be considered case by case.
Meanwhile, some question why an accelerated immigration must take up to three more years. Israeli officials say the reason is budgetary—not because potential immigrants are poor and black, as some Falash Mura accuse. Still, critics point out, in the history of the Jewish state no group of distressed Jews has ever been kept out of Israel for lack of money.
Many contrast this with the Russian immigration, which included many non-Jewish spouses and others.
“If there was a similar community in Russia or America,
Israel would have brought them long ago,” said Neguise. But he believes this is because of “economic discrimination,” not racism. “In the 14 years I’ve led this struggle, I haven’t used this word [racism] even though I have anger inside about what’s been done to this community,” he explains. “After Operation Moses and Operation Solomon…it’s more a matter of people seen as weak, uneducated, a burden on the economy.”
As the Falash Mura wait their turn, some are growing frustrated and agonize over the painful separations. Yohala Takele’s parents and her younger siblings live next door to her. But her half brother and sister are already in Israel. Nearly all the Falash Mura have close family in Israel, some who are Falash Mura, some who are Beta Israel.
Her father, Ato, was a farmer, weaver and blacksmith in Chilge; in Addis Ababa he sometimes finds work as a day laborer. Now he sits on his bed, wrapped in a blanket. Two teenaged daughters and a son stand, wearing mismatched clothing, looking down shyly.
Tarfelech Gadeff, 65, who lives with her brother in a small, barren shack, is also part of a split family. Her children are in Israel, and she doesn’t understand why she is not there, too. Blind and ailing, she sits on her bed, rocking from side to side in misery. “God has not blessed me to take me there,” she said. “I’m not lucky. I lost my sight. I lost my children.”
Last October, the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry (SOSTEJE), a group of mostly white but some Ethiopian and Ethiopian Israeli academics, gathered for its 5th annual conference just a few miles from the packed hovel, the first to be held outside Europe. Opening at Addis Ababa University, the event marked the country’s first formal interest in the lives and culture of the Jewish minority. Indeed, the event included the inauguration of Ethiopia’s first-ever exhibit on Ethiopian Jews. The conference addressed everything from the history and origins of the Beta Israel to pressing social problems faced by Ethiopian olim.
One thing not addressed, however, was the Falash Mura. “What have they got to do with us?” asked Amakeletch Teferi, an Ethiopian Jewish professor at the university and the conference organizer.
Addisu Mete, leaning on a walking stick on a dirt road outside the compound in Addis Ababa, cannot lay the doubts to rest. Most of his family is in Israel and he has been waiting to join them for seven long years.
“There is no money for food, for rent, for anything,” he said. At 74, he may be running out of time. He has a message for Israel: “Please…take me to my relatives and let me mix with my family in a short period of time.”