Jewish World: In limbo, in Gondar

Thousands in Ethiopia still hope for recognition of their right to immigrate to the Jewish homeland.

Ethiopian Jews 311 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Ethiopian Jews 311
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
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 stories.“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.At first 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 aliya.“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 defiantly.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 Israel.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 Israel.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 community life.Guadie explains that until about a year ago, most of his people were recognized for their Jewish connection and in turn they received some kind of support and even food aid from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a charity that previously ran the services forthose waiting to immigrate. However, with the Israeli government tightening up its criteria for aliya, Guadie’s group is suddenly no longer eligible for any 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 Hadane.“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 chaos.”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 (Jewish law).”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 separated families.If all else fails, he declared, “I will take these families and we will begin a series of protests until the situation is changed.”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 government.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 is eligible.”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 2014.”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.