A judgment day for Ethiopian Jewry

Gideon Sa’ar’s moment of truth

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)
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)
Minister Sa’ar, I beg you to help us,” beseeched Maayan Semalin, an Israeli Ethiopian Jew whose sister still lives in the Jewish community of Gondar. “We never get answers as to why my sister is refused aliya. We and she are desperate. My parents are devastated because they haven’t seen their daughter or grandchildren for over 22 years. Their sorrow makes them physically ill. I my - self stopped studying in 12th grade in order to work to have money to send to my sister in Ethiopia. We send all we can, yet the money we send is never enough.
Please help us!” At a meeting in early September with representatives of The Struggle for the Aliya of Ethiopian Jewry, Inte - rior Minister Gideon Sa’ar seemed touched by Semalin’s request. He promised to do all he could to help.
Yet two days later, on September 17, Sa’ar announced his resignation.
He had granted us a meeting in order to put off a threatened strike, and we gladly accepted. We were planning to protest the inaction and incompetence of the committee he had appointed more than a year earlier to resolve the situation of the remaining Jews of Ethiopia, who have been refused aliya. The commit - tee had passed its July 2014 deadline without having allowed even a single Jew to make aliya. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered Sa’ar’s seat to Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, no official changing of the guard has occurred. It remains in the realm of Sa’ar’s power to put forward a government resolution and allow members of the Jewish communities in Gondar and Addis Ababa to join their families in Israel.
Inconsistency of the government In 2003, prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government passed a resolution that was the first to recognize the remaining Jews of Ethiopia as Jews (as opposed to the insulting term that government officials still use, “Falash Mura”). The problem with this resolution was that it changed the aliya criteria for the remaining Ethiopian Jews: not the criteria used for the rest of the world, but the demand to prove they are “ zera Yisrael ” (of Jewish descent)on their mother’s side, while their paternal descent has no relevance.
According to Ethiopian Jewish tradition, only the father’s side determines one’s religion. But the inconsistency of the government has led to many cases, such as Semalin’s, in which a whole family (father, mother, brothers and sisters) has made aliya thanks to the father being Jewish, and then after 2003, a family member left behind in Ethiopia is suddenly rejected (even after the mother has undergone conversion).
All those under consideration for aliya today are Ethiopian Jews with one Jewish parent and one first-degree family member (brother, sister, father or mother) in Israel. They all appear in several lists of the Jewish communities which the Interior Ministry accepted in previous years.
Sa’ar’s legacy may be that he was the interior minister who did the least for the remaining Jews of Ethiopia, among whom there has been a 50% decline in aliya over the past year. Semalin, along with many other Israelis who have been waiting too long to reunite with their families, is searching for a solution.
Mount Sinai in Addis Ababa This past Rosh Hashana, thousands of Jews prayed for many hours in the synagogues of Addis Ababa and Gondar, yet again imploring God to bring them to the Promised Land and reunite them with their brothers, sisters and children living in Israel.
Earlier the same week, tremendous excitement rippled through the Jewish community of Addis Ababa: It had received a new Torah scroll 10 years after its own had been taken by Jewish organizations that had left Ethiopia.
“This was a special day for us in Addis Ababa. We are so happy to be able to celebrate Rosh Hashana with our Torah,” said Abib Endeshaw, who has been waiting in Addis Ababa for over 17 years and works at the Ethiopian National Bank. “I felt like our fathers and mothers when they received the Torah from Mount Sinai.”
Rabbi Menahem Waldman, who has been active for more than 24 years with the remaining Jews of Ethiopia, brought the Torah to the community, after which he headed to Gondar for Rosh Hashana.
“The Jewish communities in Addis Ababa and Gondar are exemplary in their adherence to Jewish Torah and mitzvot, even in situations of exile and harsh liing conditions. Their love of the Torah, of the God of Israel and of the land of Israel, as well as the joy that erupted from them when they received the Torah from Israel, require anyone with a Jewish heart to act immediately to bring them to Israel,” said Waldman.
Since Sharon’s 2003 resolution, the remaining Jews of Ethiopia make aliya not according to the principles of the Law of Return, but on the basis of the Admission Law to Israel, which leaves all the responsibility in the hands of the interior minister or government officials. This decision, which was made even though almost all rabbis and kesim (Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders) agree that the remaining Jews of Ethiopia are halachically Jewish, turned the request to reunite families into an ex - hausting bureaucratic struggle.