Falas Mura deserve our support

Since Operation Solomon began five years ago this month, 14,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel, joining a 56,000-strong Ethiopian community. The momentous airlifts and the absorption of those new emigres were made possible not only through the efforts of the Israeli government but by the work of Jewish agencies worldwide.

However, another 3,800 people, the Falas Mura, lead Orthodox lives in an Addis Ababa compound where they wait in limbo to immigrate. An additional 6,000 to 60,000 Falas Mura live in the provinces.

One hurdle stands in the way of their departure: Who is a Jew?

While the Falas Mura are of Jewish lineage, some have either converted to other faiths or assimilated, according to the Jewish Agency. As a result, while 14,000 Ethiopians were classified as Beta Yisrael and placed on planes during Operation Solomon, the Falas Mura were left behind.

Five years later, they are still waiting. More than 100 have died since 1991, many of them children. Meanwhile, the Falas Mura's Jewish status awaits determination, not by religious authorities but by secular officials in Israel's Ministry of Interior.

Some Israeli authorities blame the Ethiopian government for the slow progress and for only allowing 100 Falas Mura to leave Ethiopia each month. Yosef Abramowitz, author of the series on the Falas Mura, disputes that, saying Israeli authorities are passing the buck.

Meanwhile, residents of the Addis Ababa compound gather each week for Shabbat services. They translate prayer books into Amharic, celebrate the Jewish holidays and teach themselves Judaism from tapes. Through their devotion, they have earned the right to be called Jews.

Israel's Supreme Court will soon hear a petition to have the government recognize the Falas Mura as Jews, and bring them to Israel under the Law of Return.

Americans, in the meantime, are coming to their aid. In Berkeley, Linda Press Wulf and other members of Congregation Beth Israel are launching a letter-writing campaign, hoping to pressure the Israeli government. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which is operating the Addis Ababa compound, is seeking donations.

We support the work of that conference and the Beth Israel campaign. We applaud the efforts Israel has already made to welcome Ethiopian Jews. And we eagerly await the absorption of the Falas Mura who seek to emigrate.

In the compound, the Falas Mura are learning what it means to be Jewish. We cannot allow them to languish.