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The Last Jews of Ethiopia?

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Ethiopian Falash Mura immigrants disembark after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport. Photograph by JAFI Israel.
Ethiopian Falash Mura immigrants disembark after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport. Photograph by JAFI Israel.

A page has been turned in the history of Jews in Ethiopia. But despite what Israel may think, the page doesn’t mark the end of the book, but merely a new, uncertain chapter.
On 28 August, two aeroplanes carrying 450 Ethiopian migrants took off from the town of Gondar in northern Ethiopia, headed for Israel. Their arrival at Ben Gurion airport shortly after was commemorated with an outpouring of joy from their relatives already in the country and a short welcome ceremony. And with that, Operation Dove’s Wings – and the Israeli government’s attempts to bring Ethiopian Jews over to Israel – was officially over.
Since it began in November 2010, the operation has brought over around 7,000 Ethiopian Jews. And the ending of the programme suggests the mission to relocate the Jewish population from the Horn of Africa nation has been successfully realised. “Completing the journey of Operation Dove’s Wings brings to a close a historic journey that began three thousand years ago,” said Jewish Agency Chairman, Natan Sharansky, suggesting Ethiopian Jews were all now in Israel.

However, some would beg to differ. According to some estimates there could be another 7,000 people left behind in Ethiopia who practice Judaism, who are treated as Jews, and who had been desperate to be involved in Aliyah (the immigration of Jews to Israel).
The Falash Mura
The majority of those who immigrated to Israel under Operation Dove’s Wings belong to a community known as the Falash Mura, or Zera Israel.
The history of Jews in Ethiopia stretches back 2,000 years, but in the 19th century, European missionaries arrived in the country and began pressuring the Jewish population to convert to Christianity, particularly targeting those suffering from discrimination.
Some Jews converted voluntary and others were forced to do so, but many of these ‘new Christians’ tended to stay in their villages and did not integrate with the established Christian community.
Instead they kept in contact with their Jewish cousins and some returned to Judaism. The Falash Mura today, mostly from Northern Ethiopia, are descended from those who converted in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the 1980s and 1990s, members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community moved to Israel en masse, most famously in Operation Moses – in which 8,000 Jews were airlifted from Sudanese refugee camps during the 1984-5 famine – and Operation Solomon – in which some 14,000 Jews were rescued from Addis Ababa as Eritrean and Tigrean rebels closed in on the capital.
Some Falash Mura reportedly attempted to board these flights but were rejected by the Israeli authorities on account of their officially Christian faith.
The Falash Mura aren’t considered Jewish according to Jewish law, and those who have moved to Israel as part of Aliyah since the 1980s and 1990s haven’t done so by applying for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return – a piece of legislation which allows Jews around the world to gain citizenship and live in Israel – but have had to apply for a separate kind of visa and undergo a special conversion process once in Israel.
A political hot potato
Since the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Falash Mura – many of whom feel marginalised and discriminated against in Ethiopian society – have left their villages and moved to Addis Ababa and Gondar to take up their ancestral faith and apply for Aliyah. And in 2010, the Israeli government began Operation Dove’s Wings to fly over Falash Mura to Israel.
However, the community’s attempts to migrate have long been vulnerable to political changes of direction in Israel where the issue of the Falash Mura is fiercely contested. Many established Ethiopian Jews have campaigned for them to be brought over to Israel, though some object believing they should be punished for abandoning their faith.
Meanwhile, amongst political parties, the more religious and right-wing groups tend to favour Falash Mura immigration as, after conversion, they will increase the Jewish majority in Israel; whilst it is usually secularist politicians who are the most outspoken opponents of the policy, arguing that the financial and social cost of integrating Ethiopians is not worthwhile.
As a consequence, state policy on the Falash Mura has been a tortuous and ever-changing compromise. Despite rulings in their favour by leading Rabbis, Falash Mura are not recognised as Jews by the State, and can only gain citizenship once they have converted after a year’s residence in the country. And their Aliyah has progressed in fits and starts as successive governments have declared a decisive end to their immigration only for it to be restarted at a later date.
One government decision, however, has had a lasting and significant impact. In 2003, Israel decided that only those with a matrilineal Jewish descent going back seven generations would be permitted in the Aliyah. In Ethiopia, a child inherits its father’s religion, and the result was that thousands of Falash Mura who had already been approved for Aliyah were now delisted.
Abandoned in Gondar
But despite this blow, many stayed put in Gondar, attending synagogue and sending their children to the Jewish school in the hope the policy would change. But unfortunately for them, it never did, and with the completion of Operation Dove’s Wings, thousands of dreams look more unlikely to be realised than ever.
Those left behind are angry and frustrated at being denied entrance to Israel while their close relatives – in some cases even parents or children – have been eligible for Aliyah. Many Falash Mura previously left their farms and villages and moved to Gondar in the belief that being in the town would expedite a move; instead, many have been waiting there for over 10 years.
Furthermore, with everyone who was officially eligible for Aliyah now in Israel, the Jewish infrastructure in Gondar is being shut down. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), an NGO tasked with preparing future migrants for their trips, has withdrawn from the synagogue it was running and has closed down the local Jewish school.
A private donor has provided the rent for the synagogue to remain open for this month, but the school has already been handed over to the Ethiopian government to function as a state school.
The remaining Falash Mura – of whom there are estimated to be a few thousand – have formed an association called Hatikva (Hebrew for ‘hope’) and have taken over the running of the synagogue. A British charity called Meketa is providing some training, tools and loans to help them make a living in Gondar, and has offered its building as an alternative site for the synagogue when the lease on the present one expires.
But for the time being, it looks like the Falash Mura have been left in limbo. The Israeli government refuses to recognise them as Jews. And they cannot return to their villages as they have sold their land and livestock.
The Falash Mura could disperse into Gondar and assimilate into the surrounding Christian society, but this seems to be a highly unrealistic option. The Falash Mura feel passionately about their Jewish faith; they practice the religion piously, they have formed their identities around it, and are seen – and in many cases discriminated against – by the rest of Ethiopian society as Jews.
In the long-term, Israel could perform another U-turn, but in the meantime, and despite the view the government, the story of Jews in Ethiopia is still being played out.
Correction 21/10/13: The first sentence originally said the planes flew from Gondar. The passengers were from Gondar but the planes actually took off from Addis Ababa.
Avi Bram is a graduate of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University, where he specialised in the politics of sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked and travelled in East Africa. His interests include political economy and the Horn of Africa.
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