Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Religion and State in Israel - September 3, 2013 - Special edition on Ethiopian Aliyah

Editor – Joel Katz
Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.

VIDEO: Operation Wings of a Dove

Nate Shapiro had gotten involved in the effort even earlier. A Chicago businessman, he headed the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.

"We first flew I think four or five out to Frankfurt from Khartoum, then we flew 14 out, then we flew two out. We found out there were thousands of people leaving Sudan, moving into the European workforce at the time. We looked into why that was happening, and it turned out they were buying passports. So we bought 500 passports that were forged," Shapiro says, laughing.

For a Falash Mura to be eligible, according to the original, main government criteria, an individual had to have Jewish matrilineal descent, even it was from several generations back.

The government based the criterion, first, on the Jewish legal concept that Judaism is passed down through the mother and, second, on the concept of zera Israel, or the “seeds of Israel,” i.e., those who may not be Jewish but embody a relationship to the faith.

The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry has also played a pivotal role in this aliya narrative. It was NACOEJ that mobilized the North American Jewish community to make the aliya of Ethiopian Jews a priority nearly three decades ago. 

It was NACOEJ that helped inspire rabbis from various streams, including the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, to agree that for the purposes of aliya, Israel should consider the Ethiopian Jewish community to be Jewish.

For most of these three decades, it was NACOEJ that ran the food pantries to feed the hungry. It was NACOEJ that created a “weaving business” to provide work for the unemployed in Gondar. And, it was NACOEJ that built and ran the Gondar school.

Their tragedy was written on the wall. On a plaque of wet concrete, a man slowly engraved a sentence in Amharic. His inscription marked the closure of the Beta Israel Community Primary School—the only Jewish school in the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar.

A memorial stone, if you like, it read, “This school was donated to the Gondar city administration by the Jewish Agency for Israel.”

Yesh Atid MKs Shimon Solomon and Pnina Tamnu- Shata, both Ethiopian immigrants, critiqued the claim that Ethiopian aliya was finished.

“There are families that are still there, and this is intolerable,” Solomon told the gathering.

From now on, the cabinet has decided, there will be no more organized group immigration of Ethiopians to Israel. An Interior Ministry committee for special cases has been set up to consider individual immigration requests.

"This is the end of the group immigration. Individuals will continue to come from Ethiopia like from any other state," Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver said.

Ethiopian-Israelis are planning a protest outside of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office at the same time that a plane representing the official end of Ethiopian aliya is scheduled to land at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman urged the government to reconsider. “I welcome the new Immigrants arriving today. 

However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters of Ethiopians who are already in Israel who are being left behind. And, we won’t leave them behind,” he said.

“I visited Gondar last year and met them. I saw their tears, I heard their cries, and I was inspired by their drive to move to Israel and be reunited with their loved ones. 

I call on the government and the Jewish Agency to keep all services in Gondar in place until every single relative of Israelis has their appeal heard by the special committee set up by the Interior Committee and commit not to rest until I know that no families remain torn apart.”

“I have lived here between despair and hope, not doing anything with my life,” Mr Tekaba says bitterly. About 1,900 other members of the Falashmura community in Gondar have been turned down, many of them, like Mr Tekaba, now face an uncertain future.
Worke Germai has also worked at the community centre, teaching Jewish customs, and is now contemplating her future.

She disputes the ministry’s decision. “If I had no connection to the Jewish people, why did they allow my mother to go to Israel?” she asks. 

“Even if I cannot emigrate soon, I will cling to my Jewishness,” she promises. “I believe in God who will one day take me to Eretz Yisrael.”

Since last October, the Jewish Agency has chartered 91 flights, which have brought altogether 7,000 Ethiopians to Israel on Operation Dove’s Wings.  

Rabbi Menachem Waldman, director of the Shvut Am Institute, which works on youth conversions, has become the Chief Rabbinate’s emissary on Falash Mura immigration. An outspoken proponent of bringing the Falash Mura community to Israel, Waldman claimed the government has created a double standard.

“If a Falash Mura man is directly Jewish from his father, meaning his father was Jewish from both sides of his family, then that man still can’t immigrate [assuming his mother doesn't have Jewish roots] — whereas people who make aliya under the Law of Return might not have even one Jewish parent, but will still be allowed to come,” he said in a telephone interview.

Minister of Absorption Sofa Landver said, "Three years after I advised the Prime Minister of Israel to bring Operation Dove’s Wings to an end, to close the compound in Gondar and to complete the journey of organized Aliyah from Ethiopia, I am proud to take part in this historic event.

According to activist Yitzhak Sokoloff, who recently came back from a visit at the Gondar refugee center, protests by some of the members of the Falash Mura community being left behind have resulted in some of the facilities in the camp being kept open for at least another month following Wednesday’s final flight.

An agency official confirmed that the synagogue in Gondar will remain open at least until the upcoming holidays are passed and that those remaining will have access to Torah scrolls for at least that period of time.

“A Jew who grows up in the state-secular education system in Israel doesn’t encounter this tradition, which they’re learning here in the conversion course,” he says. 

“I’m not talking about observing mitzvoth or Shabbat. I’m not trying to bring people back to religion. But I am talking about knowing Judaism the way you learn history and mathematics. For their general knowledge.”

He explains that the new immigrants are also aware of this absurdity: “Their encounter with Jews who aren’t skullcap-wearers is traumatic. They come back to class and ask me: ‘Why do I have to study what they don’t know?’ It’s a slap in the face.”

Rabbi Solomon Mabruhato, director for Ethiopian immigrants at the Prime Minister’s Office, admits openly that the conversion process exacts a high price, especially among the Falashmura.

There are many crises,” he says, “connected to immigration, but the pressure of conversion is greater than the other things. These aren’t ordinary immigrants − their absorption is contingent on conversion. They will receive acceptance as belonging and full rights only if they undergo the conversion process − their mind is totally engaged with this issue. 

It happens that if a family doesn’t pass the first time it puts the whole family into a profound and serious crisis, which will accompany them even if the process is completed, and of course if it is not. It puts them into tremendous pressure, and there are lots of families that break up.”

In the summer of 1981, Barbara Ribakove Gordon traveled with a group of 12 other American Jews by foot, and on mule and horseback, through the Semien Mountains in northeastern Ethiopia until they reached a tiny, isolated, Jewish village perched on the edge of a cliff. 

Arriving, they went into “culture shock, deep, deep culture shock,” she said, taking in the sight of impoverished, barefoot, Jewish children and mud huts.

Calling the decision to end Ethiopian aliya “sensitive and complex,” Seyum, the Jewish Agency emissary, acknowledged pressure from the Ethiopian community in Israel for the aliya to continue but said he was bound by the government’s decision to end it.

"The Jews lived in Gondar for 2,500 years but their longing to return home never weakened," Sharansky said. 'We're closing a huge circle that spans thousands of years."

Editor – Joel Katz
Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.