Jerusalem Report

Pandora in Gondora

The ‘last’ of the Gondar Falash Mura arrive in Israel as thousands languish in Addis Ababa waiting in vain for permission to immigrate.

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Photo by: Moshe Shai
“It’s a Pandora’s Box – open it and no one knows what will emerge,” says Asher Fentahun Seyum, the Jewish Agency’s top official in Gondar, addressing the vexed question of what to do with the thousands of Ethiopians who consider themselves Jews, but are not on the official Israel government aliya list. Seyum is the man who was landed with the mission of carrying out the government decision of November 2010 to bring the “last” contingent of potential immigrants, some 7,000 of them, to Israel in an operation termed “Wings of the Dove.”

Seyum is a charismatic 41-year-old who arrived in Israel in 1984 at the age of 13, after an arduous and dangerfraught trek with his family from Gondar to Sudan. He went to work with energy and skill, and in less than two years set up an operation that brought more than 5,000 Gondar Jews to Israel. He pledges to “close shop” by next Rosh Hashana, when the 1,000 or so left in Gondar are settled in Israel.

But what happens then? Some estimates put the number of potential immigrants who have not been approved for aliya at over 10,000. Several thousand have left their villages and wait in vain in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for the coveted aliya approval. The crux of the problem is the Falash Mura – the descendants of Ethiopian Jews (called Beta Israel or House of Israel) – who were forced to convert, or voluntarily converted, to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For the average Israeli, Ethiopian Jews appear to be a homogeneous group. But behind the outward uniformity hides a schism that splits the community. The Ethiopian Jews who started coming to Israel in the late 1970s were Beta Israel. They were practicing Jews and fervent Zionists whose dream was to go up to Jerusalem. A grass-roots movement, encouraged by activists, saw tens of thousands leave their homes and possessions and embark on a perilous trek of hundreds of kilometers by foot through the badlands on the Sudanese border. Eventually arriving at camps in Sudan, they were spirited clandestinely home to Israel by plane and boat. Many thousands died on the way – beset upon by bandits, disease and starvation.

This aliya was pretty much wrapped up by the early 1990s, culminating in the mass airlift, termed “Operation Shlomo,” from Addis Ababa, which brought in 14,310 immigrants, jam-packed in jumbo jets and other aircraft, in less than two days in May 1991. But then a new player entered the arena – the Falash Mura. Originally Jews, they had left the fold in the past, and now were not considered halakhically Jewish.

Aliya was no longer the hazardous enterprise it had been, and Falash Mura began arriving at the camps set up for the Ethiopian Jews, demanding to be brought to Israel in light of their Jewish heritage. Various groups began applying pressure to allow the aliya of the Falash Mura. Eventually the government decided that those Falash Mura who wished to return to Jewish practice, and those with family in Israel, would be eligible for aliya, subject to undergoing a rabbinic conversion course on arrival in Israel. From that point the Falash Mura aliya proceeded apace.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in 1998 that the aliya of Ethiopian Jews had ended, the flow did not cease and by the next time he assumed office in 2009, at least 30,000 more Falash Mura had arrived.

Most veteran Beta Israel immigrants are loath to publicly criticize the Falash Mura immigration. But there is an undercurrent of resentment against them. They did not help Jews leave Ethiopia during the dangerous decades, even hindering them on their way, and now its members line up to join a deluxe aliya flight to Israel in comfortable seats on a modern jetliner.

This is not to say that potential immigrants in Gondar have it easy. Most have left their villages, sold their possessions and wait aimlessly, quite often for years, hoping their aliya applications will be approved. Some of the bureaucratic decisions are arbitrary.

Tegave Jember, 68, whose father was Jewish (his mother was Christian), has five brothers who immigrated to Israel in 1991 in Operation Shlomo. He was deemed ineligible for aliya, even though he also has six uncles living in Israel. Provided with a subsistence job, Jember works in the kitchen of the Jewish Agency-run community center in Gondar to help him support his wife and three children.

He tells The Jerusalem Report that he does not wish to die in Gondar – all he hopes for is to live his remaining years in the Holy Land with the rest of his family.

Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, tells the Report that Jember had been turned down because he married a Christian woman, while his brothers married Jewish women. She did not respond when asked why he had not been allowed to immigrate under the family reunification law.

Seyum is adamant that when this final aliya from Ethiopia is wrapped up, an appeals procedure should be implemented to deal with cases where justice was not done. “They are not cattle. Officials could have made mis-takes. At most there would be a few hundred cases. Then we could close shop,” he declares to The Report.

Jewish Agency officials admit that among the latest batch of “approved” immigrants are five men who were practicing Christian priests. Beta Israel immigrants have expressed the fear that some of the newcomers could attempt to missionize Ethiopian Jews in Israel and that some of the new immigrants, while passing themselves off as Jews, are believing Christians.

Fasil Kassa, 38, has been waiting in Gondar, with thousands of other Falash Mura, for eight years for his aliya application to be approved.

He sold his farm in a village to the north and since then he, his wife, Frunus, and their five children have been eking out a meager existence. He lives off the remains of his savings and income from occasional hard-to-come-by day jobs in the povertystricken city, which four centuries ago was the glorious capital of the kings of Gondar.

The family lives in a cramped one-room mud hovel. Cooking is done outside on open wood fires and there is no evidence of sanitary facilities.

The Jewish Agency helps out with meals for the kids at the school it runs and organizes handouts of teff, a grain used to make injera, the crêpe-like bread that is the staple of Ethiopian meals. The agency also runs a community center, which includes a synagogue, kindergarten and kitchen. There is no central housing facility, so potential immigrants have to make their own accommodation arrangements.

Kassa leans against the door post of his house, a bemused look on his face. Reporters and photographers are crowding in to snap the family packing their paltry belongings three days before boarding a flight to Israel. Children in tattered clothing dart about.

Kassa’s son Getachew, 17, who speaks Hebrew that he learned at the agency school, translates for his father, and Fasil tells me that he can’t believe his eight-year wait is over and that they are about to leave for Israel.

Fast-forward two weeks: I arrive at the Jewish Agency’s Ibim Absorption Center, adjoining Sderot opposite the Gaza Strip, to visit the immigrants I had last seen on a plane to Israel. As I approach the gate of the center, a youth, dressed in a spanking new sweatshirt and pants, strides up. It is Getachew – and an emotional (on my part) reunion ensues.

There is more than a world of difference between the absorption center and the hovels of Gondar. The center, formerly a residence for students, looks like a holiday village, with single-story red-roofed houses set in a parklike area.

Moshe Bahta, director of the center, takes me to visit the Kassa family. The mother, Frunus shows me around – living room, kitchen, master bedroom, children’s room and safe (against rockets) room, which serves as accommodation for the youngest kids. It’s all sparkling clean, if somewhat sparsely furnished – they didn’t bring much from Gondar.

The contrast between the demeanor and outward appearance of the immigrants back in Gondar and on their arrival in Israel is striking. In Gondar, their clothing was poor and often torn; some went barefoot or else wore cheap plastic footwear.

A confident-looking Kassa walks up, kids in tow at the end of their school day. A broad smile on his face, he greets me, his “old” friend from Gondar.

Kassa was one of 237 Jews who arrived October 29 in Tel Aviv on a special charter flight from Addis Ababa, the largest single group of immigrants to land in Israel in the last two years, since operation Wings of the Dove began.

Bahta, 54, tells The Report that he sees his mission as creating as soft a landing as possible for the immigrants. He shows me one of the houses that have been made ready for a new group of immigrants due to arrive the next day. It is identical to the Kassa family home. There is a brand new, large refrigerator full of goodies, such as frozen chicken and loaves of bread (no injera – teff is not available in Israel). The sets of plates and cutlery are brand new as are the chairs, table, sheets, beds and bunk beds – all funded by the government, Bahta points out.

Bahta was 17 when he joined the Tigray rebels fighting Ethiopia’s tyrannical Mengistu regime. Wounded twice, he crossed over to Sudan and managed to make his way to Israel in 1980. He says the immigrant children are enrolled in school and the adults are being taught Hebrew and will get vocational training. Seasonal work in agriculture and factories in the area will be offered to the immigrants.

Bahta says there is a remnant of 500 to 1,000 Jews, not Falash Mura, still waiting in Tigray for permission to immigrate. He complains that all appeals to the Interior Ministry to allow them to come to Israel have fallen on deaf ears.

He managed to get the whole 600-person capacity absorption facility up and running since September 1, and it will be completely full by year’s end. The other Wings of the Dove immigrants have been settled throughout the country.

I left Ibim confident that Bahta and his team were indeed providing the immigrants with a soft landing.

As I drove out of the facility I switched on the radio and learned that Hamas master terrorist Ahmed Jabari had been assassinated, which set off Operation Pillar of Defense, the mini-war against Hamas in Gaza in mid-November. I immediately phoned Bahta to alert him and he reassured me that I should not worry, as they were prepared.

Indeed, the center is on the outskirts of Sderot and well within range of rockets and mortars from Gaza. However, an Iron Dome anti-missile battery was already in place in the open field below the center.

After the cease-fire with Hamas came into effect in late November, Bahta relates that the immigrants had not been fazed by the rocket barrages fired at Sderot, even though some missiles landed near the absorption center. The newcomers cheered when the Iron Dome battery sent off its interceptor missiles. And when it came to following Home Front Command safety procedures to run to the safe rooms when under attack, they did so in perfect order and without panic.

“They reacted better than veteran Israelis,” Bahta says proudly of his charges.


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