Last of a Series: Future of stranded Ethiopians hanging on their Jewish identity

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Two women, wrapped in colorful native garb, crouch beside the ritual bath. They have come to show another woman the proper way to immerse herself.

As one attendant says the blessing, the woman repeats it word by word. She disappears under the warm, clear waters of the Addis Ababa mikveh and re-emerges renewed.

The 3,800 Falas Mura who live around the compound operated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry keep kosher, pray regularly and conduct the world's largest seder. But when it comes to this group's Jewish identity, Israel's former ambassador to Ethiopia, Uri Noi, remains skeptical.

If you tell average Ethiopians that they can go to Australia if they will "eat kangaroo meat and sing `Waltzing Matilda,'" he told an Ethiopian newspaper, "you will have a million people lined up to leave."

Noi isn't the only one unconvinced. Whether the Falas Mura are really Jews is at the crux of the long-running controversy that has left them languishing in the Ethiopian capital.

Since Operation Solomon, the dramatic airlift that brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991, American Jewish organizations have contributed nearly $10 million to sustain the Falas Mura, who had fled their villages in hope of reaching the Jewish state but were left behind in Addis Ababa.

Of those, more than 100 have died, many of them children. Families have been torn apart, and the community has been exposed to AIDS and other diseases endemic to the city.

According to the Israeli government, the Falas Mura may come to Israel if they can prove they have relatives in Israel or at least one Jewish grandfather. However, few Israeli institutions or government officials appear to be investigating the lineage of the Falas Mura. In fact, the evidence points to woeful neglect on the part of the Israeli government.

"This is the most misunderstood and therefore vilified Jewish community in the world," says Andy Goldman, who runs the NACOEJ compound. "We have a situation where secular Israelis and secular institutions, and not the rabbinate, have placed themselves in a position to judge the religious and spiritual legitimacy of the Falas Mura."

Israel's Supreme Court will soon hear a petition by attorney Michael Corenaldi to have the Israeli government recognize the Falas Mura in the compound as Jews, and to bring them to Israel immediately under the Law of Return.

Under Israel's Law of Return, which grants all Jews automatic entry and citizenship, it is the secular government and not the rabbis who determine who is and who is not a Jew. Making that judgment often involves extensive research.

While the Beta Yisrael, as Ethiopian Jews call themselves, resisted assimilation over the centuries, the Falas Mura are people of Jewish descent who strayed from the Jewish villages in search of better economic and educational opportunities. Although they rarely intermarried, they often assimilated and many converted.

And yet many have also clung to an ethnic and quasi-religious Jewish identity.

Estimates of how many Falas Mura live in the provinces range from 6,000 to 60,000, but most experts agree there are around 20,000. Still, the Jewish Agency office in Gondar, which processes applications of Falas Mura in the north of the country, is not overwhelmed with applications.

In fact, "we have to send people out into the mountains to look for applicants," says an Israeli diplomatic source in Ethiopia.

According to a statement from Yigal Palmor of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Falas Mura, "by their own definition, are not part of the BetaYisrael community but rather people who have distanced themselves from the community over the generations.

"They were left in Ethiopia during Operation Solomon based on Prime Minister Shamir's decision.

"The ministerial committee on the Falas Mura, headed by Minister Yair Tsaban, set out a series of humanitarian criteria for family reunion, which are not applied to any other community in the world, enabling 3,133 Falas Mura to join their relations in Israel, with full oleh [immigrant] status. Two-thirds of these are from the Addis Ababa group."

The Falas Mura in the Addis Ababa compound are different from those in the provinces, who range from converts to Christianity to an Ethiopian version of a secular Jew.

Rabbi Menachem Waldman of the chief rabbinate first dismissed the legitimacy of the Addis Ababa group in a harsh report in June 1992. But when the community began to practice Judaism on its own, translating prayer books into Amharic, teaching itself Judaism from tapes and celebrating all the Jewish holidays, Waldman had a change of heart.

In fact, he is now their greatest advocate.

The chief rabbi's committee on the spiritual absorption of Ethiopian Jews has declared that the Falas Mura in the compound are a Jewish community that should be helped, nurtured and brought to Israel under the Law of Return. But neither the Israeli government nor the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee accept the committee's conclusion.

Under Israel's Law of Return, "the rabbinate doesn't decide who comes to Israel or not," notes Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the Joint. "We have always worked in conjunction with the Israeli government, and we've always coordinated according to their policy."

Although it is an American Jewish organization, the Joint only assists Israeli government-approved recipients. It is currently providing monthly assistance and medical care for about 2,800 Falas Mura as they await a decision regarding their eligibility for immigration to Israel. Schneider did concede, however, that "we are certainly getting mixed messages from Israel" about the status of the community.

There is a precedent for allowing significant numbers of Jews to come to Israel without it causing a stir.

In the mayhem of carrying out Operation Solomon in 1991, Jewish Agency officials neglected to alert the Jews of Quara that an airlift was being planned and so they were left behind. In the months after the airlift, 500 Quara Jews left monthly for half a year on commercial jets for Israel. That is five times the number that are currently trickling out.

"This is a story about a Jewish community that could come home now," says Dr. Jack Zeller of the Washington Association for Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy group that underwrote travel expenses to Ethiopia for this series. "But up to now there has not been sufficient political will in the American Jewish community or in Israel to make that happen. American Jews need to recognize the power that their opinion and dollars carry. "

The solution is not only political but religious, Ethiopian activists say. "If Ethiopia had its own rabbinical court to affirm the Jewishness of the community, then these people would have left a long time ago for Israel as Jews under the Law of Return," says Waldman.

"But as far as I'm concerned, they are Jews," he adds.

Waldman has, in fact, compiled a list of 3,300 people that he considers to be Jewish. Six hundred others are still being researched.

The list was then brought before 70 elders of the community living in Israel to verify questions of lineage and personal status. Most of the kessim, the religious leaders of the Ethiopian community, have also recognized the community as Jewish and have called on the Israeli government to bring them to Israel.

The Interior Ministry, however, does not recognize Waldman's list as official. At the same time, it has not deployed the necessary resources to document these cases on its own. The Jewish Agency has a single staff member in Addis Ababa, while the Interior Ministry has no one.

Tova Ellinson, a Ministry of Interior spokesperson, says that why the aliyah of the Falas Mura is moving so slowly "is not a question for us to answer. Ask the Ministry of Absorption. The Ethiopian Government only allows 100 a month to leave. Ask the Ministry of Absorption or the Foreign Ministry if you want more than that."

In Israel, Avraham Neguise, head of South Wing to Zion, contends the Interior Ministry has the authority to solve the problem. "If the Interior Ministry sent a team of 10 people to Addis Ababa for two weeks and had people in Israel tracking down family members, this matter would be cleared up in a matter of months," he says.

That is among the recommendations of the Knesset's Aliyah and Absorption Committee, which held hearings on the Falas Mura. The committee issued a scathing report recently, charging that the government and the various ministries have been dragging their feet.

Describing the mission of bringing the Falas Mura to Israel, the committee deemed it "the highest national and Zionist obligation," and called on increasing the humanitarian aid to those on and off the Joint program.

The committee further empowered the chief rabbinate to establish a process by which to bring the Falas Mura back to Judaism and invited the Falas Mura to "join Israeli society as Israelis and as Jews."

It also asked the prime minister; the ministers of interior, foreign affairs, absorption and treasury; and the executive of the Jewish Agency to give the Knesset a full accounting.

According to documents, Shimon Peres as foreign minister deferred the responsibility of the Falas Mura to other ministries. Three years ago the community sent a letter to Peres pleading for his help, but he never responded.

Peres was due for a state visit to Ethiopia on Nov. 5, the day after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Although Peres did not make the trip, sources with his delegation said he was not going to press for resolution of the status of the Falas Mura.

No one from the prime minister's office has been willing to comment on the charges of Israeli neglect. However, Tzvi Mazal, director of the Africa division of the foreign ministry, calls articles portraying the plight of the Falas Mura part of "an anti-Israel campaign."

"Not one word of what they say is true," he says. "They are throwing mud at Israel."