GONDAR, ETHIOPIA – It’s late on a Monday afternoon and I have been brought to a
crudely made courtyard surrounded by a corrugated iron fence in the Kebele 18
district of Gondar.
In the center of the open space are narrow rows of
long benches and sitting quietly, eyeing me with hope and anticipation, are more
than 200 people dressed in their finest and eager to share their personal
“We were told to come down from the villages and that we would
soon be going to Israel but we have been waiting here for more than 10 years,”
begins one man who lost his eyesight to disease and fears he could lose his life
before he makes it to the Jewish homeland.
A woman tells how she has
close relatives in Israel and how badly she wants to join them.
glance the scene might appear familiar to anyone who has visited this northern
Ethiopian city to view the work undertaken by various Jewish aid agencies on
behalf of the Israeli government in order to prepare the Ethiopian Jewish
community waiting to make aliya.
However, what is different about this
particular group of hopeful olim is that they are not recognized by the Israeli
government as eligible for aliya and, suggest some sources, they might never be
allowed to immigrate.
“We do not care what individual people say,” states
the group’s leader, Tesfahun Adela Guadie, boldly when asked whether his people,
which he says number as high as 15,000, might never be eligible for
“We only know what God has told us to do and we know that one day
He will help us and we will end up in Israel,” he says
Ethiopian aliya is a complicated business, made more complex
by a series of declarations and retractions from successive Israeli prime
ministers and interior ministers over the past decade. The situation is even
further complicated, say locals, by widespread corruption among those who
previously facilitated pre-aliya services here and because of an oral history
that has been mishandled or misunderstood from the start.
Under the most
recent decision on the matter, approved by the Israeli government in November
2010, it is a 1999 survey of Ethiopian Jewry conducted by former
director-general of the Interior Ministry, David Efrati, that provides the
starting point for officials trying to decipher who is now eligible to immigrate
and who is not. So far close to 6,000 out of more than 8,000 of those people on
the Efrati list have been approved for aliya or have already moved to
However, members of Guadie’s group, which calls itself the
Ethiopian Jewish Unity Association, say that the Efrati list is inaccurate,
might be based on bribes and quite simply ignores tens of thousands of people,
all of them Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to
Christianity more than a century ago – and all of whom have close relatives in
WITH THE group now stuck in limbo in Ethiopia, their situation is
compounded by the fact that living conditions in the city are harsh. Not only is
there abject poverty and extremely high unemployment but, because these people
are identified as Falash Mura, they are also largely ostracized from mainstream
Guadie explains that until about a year ago, most
people were recognized for their Jewish connection and in turn they
some kind of support and even food aid from the North American
Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a charity that previously ran the services
forthose waiting to immigrate. However, with the Israeli government
its criteria for aliya, Guadie’s group is suddenly no longer eligible
kind of support or services.
Now, says Guadie, gesturing around at the
people sitting patiently in the courtyard, “we have had no choice but to
organize ourselves.” In October the group officially appointed three
representatives in Israel.
As well as showing me a neatly handwritten
list of names – members of his community accompanied by the names of their
relatives in Israel – Guadie also hands me a scrap of paper with the phone
numbers of those supporting the community from Israel.
Among the names is
Emanuel Hadane Tkuye, brother of Israel’s Ethiopian Chief Rabbi Yosef
“We are hurt that the Israeli government is dividing families,”
Hadane, a trained lawyer and newly found advocate for this cause, said in an
interview this week in Jerusalem. “We are talking about fathers being separated
from their children, mothers being left behind in Gondar, people with blood ties
who cannot fully settle in their new lives here in Israel because of this
Hadane, who has also started to represent a smaller group of
refused Falash Mura in Addis Ababa, has already set up a non-profit organization
called “Equlenet” – the word means "growth" in Amharic – to help those he feels
were left behind and has started to strategize ways to push the Israeli
government to revise its previous decision on the matter.
“I will work to
make sure that we have the support of rabbis and spiritual leaders from both
within the Ethiopian community and outside,” Hadane told The Jerusalem Post. “I
will make sure that these people are brought to Israel according to halacha
He highlights a declaration made in 2002 by Sephardic
Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar whereby the Falash Mura were officially recognized as
part of the Jewish people. Since then thousands have made aliya under a special
clause in the Law of Entry and are required to formally convert to Judaism
during their first two years in Israel. Immigrants from other countries make
aliya under the Law of Return, which enables people with just one Jewish
grandparent to immigrate.
Hadane said he also plans to start a campaign
to explain what he calls the “truth” about Ethiopian Jews to both the general
Israeli population and Israeli Ethiopians.
“The law is in our favor,”
added Hadane, who has already found a group of lawyers committed to this issue
and is in the process of submitting a petition to the High Court on behalf of
If all else fails, he declared, “I will take these
families and we will begin a series of protests until the situation is
Meanwhile in Gondar, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the
organization now in charge of the pre-aliya program, says that it is trying to
make some order and focus on sticking to the guidelines laid out by the Israeli
That means only those whose with relatives in Israel and
whose names appear on the Efrati list are being approved for aliya and they are
currently being brought to Israel at a rate of between 110-200 people each month
in coordination with the Ethiopian government.
“We will finish this aliya
by March 2014,” says Yehuda Sharf, director of aliya, absorption and special
operations for JAFI. “If there is a delay, it will only be a few months but
within the next 27 months everyone will be in Israel.”
Asked what will
happen to those who have been refused for aliya by the Israeli government, Sharf
says that some will receive compensation and all will be told clearly there is
no way for them to come to Israel.
“We are operating according to the
government’s criteria and my mission is to bring only those who have been
approved; The other people are the concern of the Ethiopian government,” he
says, adding that the infrastructure such as a JAFI-run school and a Jewish
American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) health clinic will be turned over to
the local municipality in Gondar.
“Whether someone is recognized for
aliya or not, that is not the Jewish Agency’s role,” says Sharf. “We can
recommend someone for aliya but the Interior Ministry has the final say on who
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office responding to
the claims this group highlighted that “the Government of Israel implements a
consistent policy, according to which those Falash Mura who according to halacha
are considered Jewish will be brought to Israel.”
“To date, some 3,000
Falash Mura who have qualified have been brought to Israel,” reads the
statement. “Upon the conclusion of the aliya to Israel of those eligible, and in
accordance with the Government’s decision of November 2010, the Government will
cease all of its activities in Gondar, and at the very latest by January
Responding to claims that NACOEJ was responsible for leaving
individuals or families off the eligibility list, former NACOEJ president Joseph
Feit said: “NACOEJ personnel in Ethiopia had nothing to do with determining who
was allowed to make aliya and who was not. If there was corruption on this
issue, it would have been pointless since the people involved had nothing
whatsoever to do with the process.”
Feit pointed out that the criteria
adopted by the government in Israel chose to exclude people of paternal linkage
and the examinations in Ethiopia took place via JAFI and Interior Ministry
personnel made the final approvals.
“Neither JAFI nor the Interior
Ministry allowed NACOEJ personnel to have anything whatsoever to do with the
process,” he said, adding that only through advocacy and litigation over the
course of years were many hundreds of errors in misclassifying people as not
maternally linked, or not present on the relevant lists, corrected.