Ethiopian Jewry: Will Israel repeat mistakes?

Israel must bring all of the 14,100 Ethiopian Jews who have been awaiting aliyah, in some cases for decades. Otherwise Israel will be partially responsible for deaths which could have been avoided.

 RELATIVES HOLD photos of loved ones left behind in Ethiopia, at a protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem last week demanding that the government bring the rest of Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
RELATIVES HOLD photos of loved ones left behind in Ethiopia, at a protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem last week demanding that the government bring the rest of Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Some government ministers oppose a government decision to authorize the Aliyah of the 14,100 Beta Israel in Addis Ababa and Gondar. They argue that aliyah from Ethiopia must stop because the stream of immigrants is endless and that the camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar keep refilling after they have been emptied out. Their arguments are questionable as a matter of Zionist ideology, contrary to Jewish tradition and incorrect as a matter of fact.

From a Zionist perspective, is there any other place in the world, say North America or Europe, where the government would say there are too many Jews? Why is this argument made only with respect to potential olim from Africa? Shouldn’t an increase in olim to Israel be celebrated rather than feared?

Some ministers argue that the situation in Ethiopia is different because the parents or grandparents of these potential immigrants may have converted, albeit under duress. Thus, they should no longer be considered Jewish even though they follow normative halachic practice.

This argument is invalid. Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, the State of Israel’s first chief rabbi, and grandfather of Israel’s current President Isaac Herzog, held that the descendants of Mashhadi Jews who had converted to Islam in 1839 should be brought to Israel and converted even though they were only paternally linked to the Jewish people.

Moreover, there are over 5,000 potential olim of the 14,100 who are maternally linked to the Jewish people. Even if they had converted, in accordance with the ancient dictum, “A Jew even though he has sinned remains a Jew.” Then-chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar held that “they are absolutely Jewish without question.” His view was shared by other former chief rabbis, Mordechai Eliyahu and Ovadia Yosef.

 Ethiopian-Israelis protest outside government buildings in Jerusalem, demanding that their relatives be rescues and brought to the country, on November 14, 2021. (credit: Courtesy) Ethiopian-Israelis protest outside government buildings in Jerusalem, demanding that their relatives be rescues and brought to the country, on November 14, 2021. (credit: Courtesy)

Are the government ministers saying that the views of these chief rabbis on Jewish identity are too lenient? Is there any other area of Jewish law where the government of Israel has taken that view? Would it be taking this view if these were Frenchmen with doctorates from the Sorbonne?

In practice, whether maternally or paternally linked, over 98% of the Beta Israel who have made aliyah after Operation Solomon undergo a complete giyur (conversion) supervised by the Chief Rabbinate. So questions of whether they are Jewish enough does not excuse the disparate treatment of Jews from Africa vs the rest of the world.

The objection to the camps “filling up” is also contrary to core Jewish tradition. There are no “camps” in Gondar or Addis Ababa in the commonly understood meaning of the term. The term is being deliberately used as a scare tactic, to make people think that people are encouraged to abandon their homes for Gondar where they are housed in refugee camps. This is utterly false. There is not a single bed in the so-called camps. What does exist are synagogues and a few rooms for a Jewish school. During the summer, a Jewish summer camp for 1,500 children takes place. Would Israel object to synagogues, Jewish schools and day camps operating elsewhere in the Diaspora? Of course not.

Zionist ideology and core Jewish beliefs aside, from a factual perspective, the argument that when the so-called camps are emptied, they subsequently are repopulated is false; the “camps” have never been emptied as a result of aliyah. A portion of the community is always left behind. For example, from 2011 to 2013 Israel took only maternally linked Jews; the government left behind in the camps 9,400 paternally-linked Beta Israel. Those left behind considered themselves fully Jewish and maintained their synagogues and Jewish schools even after there was no longer any assistance from the Jewish Agency or American relief organizations. The original 9,400 naturally increased in number by thousands, because of births over the years.

But there are additional people who have arrived in Gondar. Who is responsible for this? The State of Israel. Israel rarely takes Ethiopian Jews other than those who reside in Gondar and Addis Ababa. Only infrequently does Israel issue immigration visas to people residing in the villages. So people who wish to make aliyah must move to Gondar.

The government has been warned repeatedly for over 30 years that the policy of preferentially taking people from Addis Ababa and Gondar is the force driving potential new olim to abandon their homes, land and cattle. For example, in 2010, the Prime Minister’s Office was emphatically told that leaving behind 9,400 people in the camps would serve as a magnet to bring more Jews to Gondar, even though those left behind would receive no assistance from the Jewish Agency or American Jewish humanitarian organizations. And that is exactly what happened.

In short if the camps are full today, it is because (1) thousands of children have been born; (2) the government left behind thousands who sustained their Jewish communities without outside help; (3) the relatives in Israel would not give up on their children and parents; and (4) because of Israel’s policy of preferentially, almost exclusively, issuing immigration visas to people residing in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Time after time the government was warned. Time after time the government ignored the warnings. If Israel ignores the lessons of the prior thirty years and only brings a fraction of the communities, history will repeat itself.

If Israel does not want the synagogues and Jewish schools to flourish in Ethiopia – probably because they are ashamed of the image their discriminatory aliyah policy projects to the world – they must bring all of the 14,100 Jews who have been awaiting aliyah, in some cases for decades. Otherwise the lives of the Beta Israel remaining in a country in the midst of a violent civil war will be in danger – no one can predict the course of the war – and Israel will be at least partially responsible for deaths which could have been avoided.

The writer, who has received awards from the Knesset, the Jewish Agency and the Ethiopian Jewish community for three decades of service to the Ethiopian Jewish community, is currently chairman of Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ), the organization which provides services to the Jewish communities of Addis and Gondar.