Ethiopia Blog 2012 - Blog Post 1
Since my first visit to Ethiopia four years ago, I have given many talks on the subject. The titles have ranged from: Are there still Jews in Ethiopia? To: There are Jews in Ethiopia, to: There are still Jews in Ethiopia. My future talks will be entitled, I think: There will always be Jews in Ethiopia.
I am currently sitting in a comfortable hotel in Gondar viewing the attractive garden with highly coloured birds flying around and stealing crumbs from the breakfast table. But this is Gondar. There is no electricity and consequently no coffee for breakfast, and no internet. But all of this is in sharp contrast to the rest of the town and my complaints marginal when I consider that just down the road, surrounding the Beta Yisrael synagogue are slum dwellings and a shanty town in which the poorest of the Jewish community still lives. So, I am moving out today and into a small flat owned by Link Ethiopia for the use of its volunteers.
Why will there always be Jews in Ethiopia? It’s a long story. Briefly, the Israeli government took the Jews to Israel in the much-publicised operations Moses and Solomon. These were Beta Yisrael, part of an ancient community with distinctive customs and a unique faith – the people better known as Falasha. Along with them, went a number of Zera Yisrael, the descendents of Jews who had converted to Christianity, known rather derogatorily as Falash Mura. They got caught up with the rest and have provided the Israeli government with something of a headache. Though ethnically Jewish, they cannot be accepted under the Law of Return, which since the case of Oswald Rufeisen (Brother Daniel) decided that if a Jew has converted they have forfeited that right. But the Israeli government has since agreed to take Zera Yisrael under the Law of Entry, which allows for the reunification of families. In Gondar, thousands of Beta Yisrael have taken the opportunity to reconnect with their Judaism and the charity with which I volunteered four years ago, NACOEJ created a community under the auspices of an Israeli Rabbi who has taught them Mizrachi Judaism so that they can join Sephardi congregations when they get to Israel.
Two lists of Zera Yisrael were compiled – one in 1999 and another in 2005. Then, for reasons that must have to do with internal policy the decision was made to only take those Jews who were matrilineally Jewish – a decision that makes sense from the point of view of Halachah (only the Ethiopians are converted after a year in Israel anyway) – but makes no sense for the Jews in Ethiopia have always followed the patrilineal principal. Thus you have the anomaly of families that are matrilineally Jewish but practicing Christians going to Israel, while families that are patrilineally Jewish who have always considered themselves Jewish being refused.
But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and after years of false hopes and broken promises, the Community in Gondar now knows exactly where it stands. Those eligible to go to Israel have been told so and are simply awaiting process. Roughly 250 individuals are going each month at the moment and the whole procedure should take no more than eighteen months.
But what of those who are left behind? They are angry, of course. There are those who will continue to fight their cause, but that is not my concern. What worries me far more is that for years, NACOEJ supported these families with food and education. They are quite suddenly left with nothing. There are families too, rejected in 1999 Who never received anything at all and are living in abject poverty. It is no different from the poverty of their non-Jewish neighbours, but still there is a difference. Many are people who left their villages; farmers, blacksmiths, potters and weavers. In the town, their skills were redundant. They lost their means of support because of the promise that they would be taken to Israel. They have been living in Gondar for fifteen years now, getting menial jobs when they can, but these barely pay the rent and food is expensive. The death rate is high as HIV is high. Life in the villages was not great; there was famine and a vicious anti-Semitism that was not alleviated by conversion to Christianity but the people were living together as a community with a long history and a rich tradition. That has all gone.
It is hard to know how many are in this condition. It is estimated that around 5,000 individuals have been refused permission to go to Israel, but a great many of these are comfortably off, or at least can make a living. However, there is sizeable number who cannot, and for whom I think we Jews are responsible. That is why I am in Ethiopia at this time, to find out about them, and what we can do to help. That is why I am going to leave this comfortable hotel and move into a basic flat in a less favourable area for the rest of my stay; even the money I save by this move
can make a difference.