No place like home
Israel might not be the land of milk and honey for Ethiopia's Jews, but the Israeli government is keen to have them there, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The announcement by the Israeli government that it is to speed up the airlifting of 18,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel came as a shock to many in Africa and the Arab world. In Israel, however, with demographics becoming a panic theme of public discourse the timing of the announcement was less surprising. Communities of Ethiopian Jewry have long been used as pawns in the wider game of Israeli politics.
During a visit to Ethiopia last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with representatives of Ethiopia's Jewish community. The issue is complicated because while Ethiopian Jews already "naturalised" in Israel demand that their relatives in Ethiopia join them, they are opposed to the settlement of certain groups who, if originally Jewish, were converted to Christianity over a century ago.
The Falasha-Mura, who claim to be of Jewish heritage, were forcibly converted to Christianity by the then ruling Ethiopian elite. Today, the number of Falasha-Mura in Israel are officially estimated to be 80,000. Addisu Messele, the Ethiopian immigrants umbrella organisation puts the number of Falasha-Mura in Israel at 100,000. Whatever the precise numbers of Falasha-Mura in Israel today, as a community they rank among the poorest and most disadvantaged in the country. Those that remain in Ethiopia are geographically concentrated around Addis Ababa and in the northwestern province of Gondar. Shalom toured several of their camps and communities.
Shalom's Ethiopian counterpart, Seyoum Mesfin, like most Ethiopian officials and diplomats, tends to be tight- lipped about the implications of large-scale emigration of its Jewish community to Israel. Ethiopian officials usually downplay the international dimension of the future of Ethiopian Jewry.
"The Ethiopian government has no objection against Ethiopian Jews travelling to Israel," Mesfin told reporters in Addis Ababa. "In today's Ethiopia, there is no need for an organised intervention as in the 1980s and 1990s," he added (referring to an Israeli-organised airlifting of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews in 1984 and 15,000 in 1991).
Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt Girma Amare concurred, stressing that the Ethiopian government does not object in principal to individuals emigrating to Israel or any other country. However, "the Ethiopian government does not encourage mass migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel," he said.
The problem is that an increasing number of Christian Ethiopians, claiming to be Jews, are applying to emigrate to Israel. In the past, Israeli authorities turned a blind eye to the precise religious status of Ethiopians, even though religious authorities took a tougher stance and refused to consider Ethiopian Jewry, and the Falasha-Mura in particular, as Jews. The religious conviction of "white" Jews applying from the West is not scrutinised as closely as "black" Jews from Ethiopia, leaving religious authorities open to the charge of racism.
Israel's controversial Law of Return grants the right to Israeli citizenship to Jews around the world who wish to become Israeli nationals. Ethiopians, both Jews and Christians, seem keen to take advantage of Israeli policy. The new wave of Ethiopian immigrants are, many argue, essentially economic migrants.
Previous to this moment certain Israeli politicians made much political capital from settling Ethiopian Jewry. In the late 1980s and 1990s, as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians exacerbated, Israeli employers preferred Ethiopian Jews to Palestinians as cheap manual labourers. However, because most Ethiopian Jews are peasants who practiced subsistence farming in Ethiopia, they had a difficult time acclimatising to life in Israel. The costs of integrating them into the Israeli society and economy grew, and some Israeli politicians argued became prohibitively expensive. Many Israeli politicians wanted to keep the 400-person monthly quota on immigration from Ethiopia.
The Falasha-Mura community in Israel have been facing serious problems. There is a generation divide with angry youth becoming increasingly embittered about the adverse conditions of life in Israel. The young are vocal and vociferously demand their rights. The young also have problems with the elders, shmaglotch, and religious leaders, kessotch. The name Falasha means wanderer or exiled and is considered derogatory by many Ethiopians. Young Ethiopians in particular prefer to call themselves Beta Israel, or House of Israel.
Haggai Erlich, professor of history at the Hebrew University and a leading authority on the Horn of Africa, argues that there was no premeditated plot to speed up the transfer to Israel of the last wave of Falasha-Mura: "Like all other issues steps are taken [in Israel] not because of some strategic planning but as a result of competing interests and ideas," explained Erlich. "Kissinger used to say that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic tensions," Erlich told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The decision to speed up bringing the Falasha-Mura was a last minute one of the previous government initiated by Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Party, noted Erlich. "They [the Shas] are pushing for the return of the Falasha- Mura because they think that the newly reconverted would be influenced by them. However, it is opposed by many including most of the Beta Israel themselves who do not consider them [the reconverts] as Jews," said Erlich.
Many Ethiopian Jews are temporarily housed in camps in Addis Ababa run by American Jewish groups and stay there for months until they get permission to travel. The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), formed in 1993 in response to the growing crisis in education, housing and employment among the various communities of Israelis of Ethiopian origin, has been calling for the Israeli authorities to permit Ethiopia's remaining Jews to join their creed in Israel, and to improve the conditions of the Falasha-Mura communities in Israel.
Israel doesn't officially recognise the Falasha-Mura as Jewish and they are not automatically eligible for citizenship. According to official Israeli records, in 2000 Israel accepted 2,246 Ethiopian immigrants, 3,298 in 2001 and 2,693 in 2002. More are expected. Last January, 3,000 Ethiopian Jews demonstrated outside the Israeli prime minister's office in a desperate bid to force the Israeli government to permit their relatives in Ethiopia to join them even if they couldn't prove that they were Jewish.
"My personal opinion," offered Erlich, "is that only the humanistic principle should be applied in this issue -- reunification of families." Each case should, in his opinion, be checked individually. "I doubt if it's right and justified for Israel to be responsible for all those the world over who claim to have been Jews. There is a limit to what our society can cope with," he said.