Mission accomplished?

There are still 8,700 Falash Mura in Ethiopia waiting to come to Israel.

Ethiopians Jews 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ethiopians Jews 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When George W. Bush stood on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln five years ago and prematurely announced the end of military operations in Iraq, it was impossible to know how tragically inaccurate that declaration would come to be. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, prematurely and inaccurately declared the Ethiopian aliya to be Mission Accomplished, when the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) welcomed the "final flight" of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. The leadership of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) would do well to ignore the JAFI-Olmert declaration and instead listen closely to what the parties to this conflict are saying. Listen to the 3000 Falash Mura immigrants who rallied outside the Prime Minister's Office during Sunday's cabinet meeting. Days after being told by Olmert and JAFI that Israel didn't want any more black immigrants, thousands of Ethiopian men in kippot, elderly women in traditional dress, young mothers with children in tow, excitable teens, some of whom will soon be serving in the IDF - all of them, crowded together and yelled, "Anachnu Yehudim!" (We are Jews!). They carried the photographs of parents they have been separated from for six or seven years, of children they never watched grow up. For five hours, they circled the government compound in the August heat. Instead of words of hate or despair, they cried "Abba! Eema!" They want their parents and they want their kids. They want their families to be whole again. If you listen to what Kadima ministers say about ending the Ethiopian immigration, one might think that Kadima had become the first post-Zionist party to rule the State of Israel. Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim, who provided the sole nay vote on two Knesset bills (42-1 and 43-1) calling to check the eligibility for immigration of all 8,700 Ethiopian Jews waiting in Gondar, went so far as calling US Jewish leaders "racist" for encouraging Ethiopians to make aliya instead of coming to the land of opportunity. While turning the historic Diaspora-Israel relationship on its head regarding poor black Jewish immigrants, the government and JAFI showed they have not abandoned the mission of rescuing Jewish refugees when they organized overnight to help Jews in danger in Georgia. KADIMA'S CLINCHER is its whisper campaign that the Falash Mura are not really Jews. They will tell you they know better than Israel's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef; than Elie Wiesel and world leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements and former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, currently chairman of the Public Committee for the Remnant of Ethiopian Jewry. They will tell you they know better than the 3,000 Falash Mura who tried to get the government's attention last Sunday. Kadima cronies ask why the Chief Rabbinate requires a conversion ceremony for Ethiopian Jews if they are already Jews. This would be a legitimate question, if it had not already been answered. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote to Olmert again this week telling him, "I have already held in the past that they are completely Jewish." Amar explained that the modified conversion required of Falash Mura immigrants upon their arrival was introduced to make absolutely certain that the new immigrants were Jewish, in case a few Christians or Muslims wrongfully included themselves among the thousands of Jews returning to Zion. "The inspection process should be resumed by experts and those who pass inspection should be brought to Israel," he argued. "This is a great privilege for the people of Israel and for the government of Israel." AND WHAT about the isolated voices from within the Ethiopian community who oppose the Falash Mura immigration? The Falash Mura ancestors converted to Christianity, and in Ethiopia relations between the Falash Mura and Beta Yisrael communities were sometimes tense, even while neither group was fully accepted by other Ethiopians. Resentment lingered after the Falash Mura returned to Judaism and the Jewish people in the past few decades. These internal tensions should be considered natural and inevitable, painful as they may be. Not all Ethiopian immigrants share identical biographies, but since other Israelis do not distinguish between them, and since there are 40,000 Falash Mura already here, they are likely to share a common future. The leaders of the community - its chief rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Hadane, many other Ethiopian rabbis and the Forum of Ethiopian Jewish Community Organizations, the umbrella for 18 major Ethiopian non-profits - have all called upon the government to allow the 8,700 to immigrate. There are thousands of Jews going hungry and growing hopeless at a Gondar way station, and American Jewry needs to be true to its legacy of compassion and leadership, even when, and especially when, Israeli leaders fall short. Above all, it is time the UJC and the Israeli government to listen to the Ethiopian Jewish Israelis who spent five hours yelling themselves hoarse, "We are Jews!" to anyone who would listen this past Sunday. The writer is program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, which has supported both Ethiopian-led organizations in Israel and organizations serving the Jewish community in Ethiopia for more than 15 years.