Here and There: Whither the Falash Mura’s ‘Hatikva’?

It is somewhat ironic that it is Arye Deri, current head of the Shas party of which Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was founder and spiritual head, who is able to decide on the fate of these 8,000 Falash Mura.

THE ‘JOURNEY to Identity’ group heads to the spot where their parents and grandparents began their trek to Sudan. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE ‘JOURNEY to Identity’ group heads to the spot where their parents and grandparents began their trek to Sudan.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
January 5 will mark 34 years since the Israeli covert mission Operation Moses brought some 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Today, Israel is home to 135,000 citizens of Ethiopian descent. It was the late Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, who recognized Beta Israel (the community of Ethiopian and Eritrean Jews) as Jews, including the Falash Mura. Falash Mura is the name given to those who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. How sad and disappointing that today some 8,000 Falash Mura are languishing, in appalling conditions, in the Gondor Province and in Addis Ababa. Many have close family members already in Israel whom they are anxious to join. Back in November 2015, the Israeli government approved the entry into Israel of these 8,000. To date, a mere 69 arrived here in November 2017.
The Magazine spoke with Nina Zuck, project chair of nonprofit ESRA, who returned from Ethiopia two weeks ago. She accompanied a group of Israeli youngsters of Ethiopian origin, aged 15 to 16, on a “Masa – Journey to Identity” visit.
The project was initiated in 2016 in Netanya’s Heftziba area, where the community is virtually 100% of Ethiopian decent. This experience enables these teenagers to touch and feel their roots. Funded three ways by ESRA, the local community center and the participants themselves, it has proven to be an outstanding success story. The participants see the place from where their parents and grandparents began their arduous trek from Ethiopia to Sudan; touched the lives once led by their families, and returned to Israel with an invigorated pride in both their heritage and Israeli citizenship.
Zuck described the group’s Shabbat visit to the synagogue in Gondor, a simple structure open on three sides, with one wall and the roof constructed of corrugated iron. Some 200 worshipers gathered, reciting prayers in both Hebrew and Amharic. To the left of the simple aron kodesh (the ark housing the Torah scrolls) are the words of “Hatikva,” virtually dwarfing the ark itself. Following the service, Zuck accompanied one of the young participants, whom we shall call Aviva, to meet with her aunt and cousins.
“We arrived at their rented home which was behind the market in a compound of seven homes,” Zuck said.
“Each home has one room with a communal kitchen and an outside toilet for the use of all seven homes. Aviva’s aunt and uncle occupy this limited space with their four children. They, together with their neighbors, left their farming villages 20 years ago, arriving in Gondor to await aliyah. They are still waiting, unable to return to their villages – even if they wanted to, which they do not – as the government has given their land to someone else.”
When asked why they chose not to settle themselves permanently in Gondor they responded, “we are waiting to go to Jerusalem.”
Aviva’s parents came to Israel in 2000, but sadly her aunt’s family is still waiting to come home. A midweek visit to the Gondor Synagogue was recently made by our friends Miriam and Alan, who were told that the synagogue is alive with boys who come every day after school for prayers and study. Sintayehu Shafrao was one of these boys who made it to the International Bible Quiz held in Jerusalem earlier this year. During the summer, the children of the community participate in a camp learning Israeli songs and dances.
A mikve (ritual bath) is in the vicinity of the synagogue. Alan spoke in Hebrew with Moshe, whose Hebrew was far more fluent than his English. Moshe explained that the three rifle-bearing, kippah-wearing guards were necessary to protect their precious two Torah scrolls. Moshe is married with two young children and has been awaiting aliyah for 24 years – since the age of 11.
“These Falash Mura think of themselves as Jews, they are doing their best to live Jewish lives and they desperately want to come to Israel,” Alan said. “What more does the Israeli government and Chief Rabbinate want?
Any questions about their Jewishness can be simply dealt with by taking them to the mikve.” Isaac Herzog, chair of the Jewish Agency, said the agency is ready and willing to absorb these potential olim. Unfortunately, the decision to evaluate their qualification for entry remains in the hands of Interior Minister Arye Deri. The Beta Israel Community holds regular demonstrations outside the home of Deri, begging him to bring their brethren to Israel.
It is somewhat ironic that it is Deri, current head of the Shas party of which Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was founder and spiritual head, who is able to decide on the fate of these 8,000 Falash Mura. His apparent negativity is in stark contrast to the views of Yosef. The argument against their entry stems from their non-recognition as Jews. The Law of Return gives the right of entry and settlement to those with a Jewish grandparent or a non-Jew married to a Jew. As a result there are some 500,000 former Soviet Union immigrants and their descendants, who while not Jews are Israeli citizens. Tragically no similar concession has been made for the Falash Mura. Could the color of their skin take precedence over all else?
What can we conclude from this tragic situation?
There can be only one answer and that is that the color of the skin takes precedence over all else. Israel can be proud of its record of giving assistance to citizens of countries (including those with whom we have no diplomatic ties) experiencing the trauma of earthquakes, tsunamis and other tragedies. Yet our response to the plight of the Falash Mura living in appalling conditions and begging to come home to Zion is pitifully ignored. How much longer will they have to wait?
In the words of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.