Critical Currents: Ethiopian Jewry as a litmus test

A sense of belonging to the Jewish people has sufficed to ease immigration requirements in other cases.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
This past year's immigration figures are appalling but hardly surprising. In 2007 barely 19,700 newcomers entered the country, including 6,445 from the former Soviet Union, 3,607 from Ethiopia, 2,957 from North America and 2,659 from France. Something is very wrong with Israel's policy toward potential newcomers. The immigration scene is marked by a mixture of ineptitude, inconsistency and intolerance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Ethiopian Jewry in general and its latest arrivals in particular. The bulk of the Ethiopian Jewish community came here in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. For the past 15 years, however, there has been an ongoing debate over the rights of those who were left behind - family members and some 25,000 Falash Mura (Jews who converted to Christianity but still consider themselves an integral part of Beita Israel). In 2003 the newly elected Sharon government decided to allow those Jews still in Ethiopia and their descendants (on the maternal side) to come here. Two years later, on February 21, 2005, following a survey conducted in the camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar, it was further agreed that the immigration of the 17,188 residents in these compounds at the time would be expedited, with a view to completing the process by the end of 2007 (Government Decision #3368). The Olmert administration has now announced that it has fulfilled its goal. The government is pulling out its last representatives from the areas, and the Jewish organizations are wrapping up their presence on the ground. IT IS NOW evident that there are still an additional 8,000 people in Gondar not taken into account in the initial calculations. Most reached the site belatedly from remote villages. No provisions have been made for processing their applications; no funds have been set aside to address their basic needs. Should this new policy remain in place (even after a review by the comptroller general following a unanimous request from the Knesset Government Oversight Committee), then these last vestiges will be abandoned to their fate. The official rationale for closing the doors is formalistic: This group was not included in the original quota and its members may not meet the criteria of "who is a Jew." As Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit explained in a debate in the Knesset plenum two weeks ago: "We are a Jewish state and we must ensure that anyone who comes here wants to be a Jew and wants to stay here. Not everyone who so desires should come." In other words, even though there are numerous halachic rulings recognizing Ethiopian Jewry, its Jewish credentials are repeatedly questioned. The issue is not, however, merely legalistic. Ethiopians of Jewish descent - and especially the Falash Mura - identify themselves as Jews and are perceived as such by their neighbors. They have endured isolation and discrimination as a result. A sense of belonging to the Jewish people has been enough to ease immigration requirements in other cases; it is insufficient for the far more observant Jews of Africa. THE RELIGIOUS justification for closing the doors to further immigration from Ethiopia is frequently linked to the difficulties attached to their absorption once here. Allowing more to come, the argument goes, will merely compound the problem. Sheetrit put it succinctly if gratingly. "Do we have the strength to bring more? Let's deal with those that we have brought in... it is an embarrassment to the state to bring more people and put them in a ghetto." Lest there be no misunderstanding, under the guise of a skewed pragmatism, discrimination against newcomers from Ethiopia - to the point of segregating their children in separate classrooms as recently occurred in Petah Tikva - is now being used as an excuse to bar their continued immigration. But if racist overtones are the root cause of inadequate treatment, as many now painfully admit, then preventing the last few thousand from reaching the country will not solve the problem. Nor will the lavishing of funds to improve the standard of living and the access to services of Israelis of Ethiopian extraction. These prejudices must be tackled directly. Israeli society is still unwilling to address the biases in its midst - not toward Jews from Ethiopia, from North Africa or from India, and not toward its non-Jewish citizens. The prevailing attitude is symptomatic of an encompassing and even more worrisome insularity which hardens too many Israelis to the plight of Palestinian couples on both sides of the Green Line or to that of a small number of refugees (yes, primarily from Africa) who are desperately seeking asylum from unspeakable atrocities. There is a direct line between the kind of thinking that wants to halt the immigration of Ethiopian Jews, the violation of elementary civil rights, and the denial of access to even the most trampled and downtrodden. All are manifestations of prejudice toward the other, the different, the alien, the unknown. They diverge only on where the line is drawn. The completion of the immigration of the last few thousand Falash Mura is therefore the litmus test of Israel's self-defined mission as a homeland for all Jews. It is also much more than that - it serves as the supreme measure of Israel's tolerance, its pluralism, its democracy and its commitment to human rights in the fundamental sense of the term. The one cannot be achieved without the other. This is why the government must facilitate the arrival of the last 8,000 awaiting permits in Gondar. It is also why Israel must now establish rigorous provisions against discrimination and punish hate offenders harshly. And it is the main reason why the country in its 60th year, in view of its own history, must finally decide on a fair and equitable immigration policy.