Ethiopian Christian faces deportation

Government demands proof that Dejjan Gavrai helped Jews immigrate.

ethiopian protest  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethiopian protest
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the government's committee on special citizenship cases told Dejjan Gavrai, a Christian Ethiopian, that he would have to prove he helped scores of Ethiopian Jews reach Israel if he wanted to stay here, he presented at least a dozen affidavits. But none of Gavrai's work in the 1980s to help Jews make it out of Ethiopia to the Sudanese border and then to Israel - an effort that encompassed 11 years and more than 10,000 people by his count - was done in coordination with the Jewish Agency or other official bodies. As a result, the committee ruled that he can be deported as of this week, despite having lived here for 13 years, having served in the army, and having family members with Israeli status. "No one knows him and there is no reason for him to stay," said Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, referring to officials in the Jewish Agency and Mossad. "He had to prove it, and he didn't prove it." Israel has identified over the years several Ethiopians who lied about being Jewish during operations to bring Ethiopian Jews here in order to improve their standard of living. Gavrai's lawyer has submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice, allowing him to stay until the case is decided. Gavrai, currently living in Ashkelon, admitted that he had no official backing for his activities. "I did it as a private individual," he said of helping guide at times hundreds of Jews through Ethiopia at night and finding them shelter and food by day. Gavrai, now 40, came to Israel in 1992 when a family grateful for his helping their daughter reach Israel listed him as a family member so he could immigrate as well. The thought of being sent back to a country he no longer has a passport for, he said, is "like an earthquake." Seven years ago, when the Interior Ministry first threatened to deport Gavrai, he told The Jerusalem Post: "I don't believe that they'll do it to me. I gave my soul to this country. I wore its uniform. Instead of getting a prize for what I did, I get a deportation order." Since then, Gavrai has already pressed his case as high as the High Court of Justice and twice appealed to the citizenship committee before receiving its final answer this month. According to his former lawyer Nadav Haber, the High Court originally said it would not intervene because Gavrai had posed as a Jew in order to come here. The current case is based on changes in his circumstances now that he has been in the country longer. MK Zehava Gal-On (Yahad) also took up his case, pressing for a second hearing of Gavrai's case before the Interior Ministry committee. A Gal-On aide stressed to the Post that the long, treacherous journey out of Ethiopia was often done in stealth and not "with forms recognized by Israel." "I have no word for the Interior Ministry's behavior in this case except 'crazy,'" Haber told the Post when the deportation order was first brought. Some have gone so far as to call Gavrai a "righteous gentile" like the European Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust. "This is racism," charged Tal Lev, a Russian Israeli married to Gavrai's niece. "Someone who is white has no problem." Hadad, however, said Gavrai would have been allowed to stay had he adequately proven his case. Haber acknowledged that other Christian Ethiopians, including Gavrai's niece, have been allowed to remain. But, he said, "it's never easy. It's always a struggle."