An immigrant from Ethiopia holds an Israeli flag as she carries her child upon her arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport in January 2011..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For more than two years, thousands of Ethiopians with deep ties to Judaism have been languishing in Ethiopia living in atrocious conditions, hoping to realize their dream of immigrating to Israel. Finally, their dream will come true.
The cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved an Interior Ministry proposal to resume aliya from Ethiopia after it had been prematurely halted in 2013.
“Special” criteria have been adopted for the renewed immigration. Any Ethiopian who moved to Gondor or Addis Ababa after January 2013, is willing to convert to Judaism, and has relatives here who can apply for his or her acceptance will be eligible for Israeli citizenship.
But why was aliya halted in the first place? And why are discriminatory criteria being adopted for the renewed immigration that do not apply to other populations with Jewish roots? After all, immigrants from Russia who have Jewish ties but who are not Jewish according to Halacha are not asked to convert to Judaism as a condition for Israeli citizenship.
Skin color and geography might have something to do with it. If Ethiopians were white and came from a more prosperous part of the world, there is a very good chance their way to Israel would have been facilitated quicker.
But part of the reason also has to do with the unique history of Ethiopian Jewry. Over the centuries, many Ethiopian Jews converted to Christian under the duress of war, poverty and other social and economic pressures, but continued to maintain a distinct communal identity.
Though it is unclear whether these conversions to Christianity were sincere, the offspring of these converts, called Falash Mura in the Judeo-Ethiopian language Gez, are not entitled to make aliya under the Law of Return. Still, the Falash Mura community comprises villages of extremely tight-knit, interconnected families.
Often a confusing, even arbitrary, selection process was used amid shifting government criteria to determine who could come and who could not. On occasion, within one family, some members were allowed to make aliya while others were not.
Further complicating matters are the tensions that exist between the Falash Mura and the Beta Israel – the Ethiopian-Jewish communities that lived in the north of Ethiopia and managed to maintain their Jewish faith despite all the hardships. Some members of Beta Israel, such as the journalist Iano Sanbeto, warn that many Falash Mura maintain their Christian traditions in Israel.
It is enough to visit some of the houses of prayer that Falash Mura have set up to realize that there is some truth to this claim.
Undoubtedly, the integration of Ethiopian immigrants, though generally successful, has been filled with challenges. As evidenced by recent demonstrations protesting police violence, Ethiopian Israelis’ discontent is deep. And the causes of discontent are many. Blood donated by Ethiopians was clandestinely disposed of; a mayor of this town or that city or its citizens or real estate agents discourage the arrival of Ethiopians; the principal of a successful school enforces quotas or segregation for Ethiopians; a public swimming pool or a nightclub refuses entry to Ethiopians; a public opinion survey uncovers bigotry and prejudice.
Statistics show that the 130,000 Ethiopian Israelis are three times more likely to live in poverty than non-Ethiopian Jewish Israelis. They are twice as likely to be unemployed. Those who work earn less. Ethiopian communities are concentrated in poor neighborhoods, which contributes to the perpetuation of poverty. And many segments of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment have questioned the very Jewishness of Ethiopians, even the Beta Israel.
We must face the many challenges of integrating Ethiopians with eyes wide open. But we should also celebrate the cabinet decision as a long overdue step toward bring to Israel a community with deep ties to the Jewish people. We are witnessing the ingathering of exiles and the renewal of ancient Jewish communities that were on the brink of disappearing. And all this is happening thanks to the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people in its land.