Al Heyt Ethiopia

Published on Haaretz

Whenever I attend rallies for the Falashmura in Jerusalem, I see thousands of people holding framed photographs of relatives left behind in Ethiopia, separated from their families by Israel’s callous policies. This summer I traveled with my wife to Ethiopia and those pictures came alive.

During our visit to a class for adults in Hebrew and Judaism, Temesgen Demeke Shedabbaw, a striking but soft-spoken young man of 28, volunteered to tell his story. He told us about his dream of coming to Israel, and how he has not seen his parents or any other relatives in eight years. When his family was allowed to make aliyah, he was told he would have to wait behind for a month. He is still waiting.

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It turns out that in the 1999 census of the Falashmura, which is used by the Israeli government to determine eligibility for immigration, children were not listed by name but rather included in a number that appeared under the line for “heads of household.” Temesgen was a child when the census was conducted, but at the time of his family’s emigration, he was already over 18. Like other young single people, he was denied permission to make aliyah because he had dared to grow up.

This policy was neither the result of a tragic bureaucratic foul-up nor an oversight, but the invention of Israeli officials who wanted to keep the immigration figures down. It reflects the preference of successive governments to find ways to keep the Falashmura out of Israel, allowing low-level officials to knock off a few dozen here, a few hundred there, or to freeze the immigration process altogether, as is currently being done.

The use of a census to determine aliyah eligibility and the imposition of monthly immigration quotas are unprecedented in Israel’s history. The most powerful weapon is the Interior Ministry’s strictly enforced demand to prove matrilineal descent going back “for all the generations” – theoretically, forever, a requirement that has never been applied to any other group. (If your great-great grandmother was not Jewish, you can’t make aliyah. ) This harsh application of halakhic standards is also foreign to Ethiopian Jews, who have historically determined their lineage patrilineally.

Critics will say that extraordinary restrictions are justified because the Falashmura’s Jewishness is in question, despite rulings to the contrary by Israel’s chief rabbis. I could point out the 700 people who showed up every day for prayers, the 500 at the children’s services, the 300,000 matzot baked at the compound last Pesach – but there is no point in rehearsing the Jewishness debate anymore. That ship has sailed. The vast majority of the Falashmura are already in Israel, with some putting the figure as high as 45,000 or 50,000.

The opponents of the Falashmura have been telling me for years that there will never be an end to the Ethiopian aliyah, because “every time the Gondar compound empties out, more Falashmura appear to fill up the camp.”

I discovered this summer that there is no camp to fill up. There never was.

The compound center is a meeting area, covered by a corrugated-metal roof, with sheet-metal dividers creating different “rooms.” The synagogue is a partly open-air space with a dirt floor, which can hold up to 1,500 people on the kind of simple wooden benches we used to have in summer camp. There are also classrooms, and “rooms” in which children aged 0-3 and pregnant and nursing women receive nutritious meals as part of a special program, as well as a mikveh. A separate location houses an office and handicrafts workshops in blacksmithing and spinning, and there is a two-year-old school a few miles away. With the exception of the school, the compound areas are very small, and there’s no place for anyone to live.

When Falashmura villagers come to Gondar to make aliyah, they forfeit everything: their homes, their fields, their flocks, the ox they use for plowing, and their village life. In the city – itself an endless maze of dirt roads and houses constructed of branches and mud – they hire themselves out as day laborers. Most families rent out a single room of four to nine square meters to house five or 10 people. Their houses back in the village are quickly occupied by strangers, preventing the possibility of return.

They take this perilous step because they are dreaming of Jerusalem, and because they want to join their families in the Jewish state. There would have been nothing to prevent other Falashmura – if there were many more – from already coming to Gondar if they shared these ambitions. But they haven’t come to get in line, suggesting there aren’t many more.

These most powerless and humble of folk have been misled, lied to, disappointed and left to rot. By keeping the Falashmura in limbo, we have found a way to dramatically lower the standard of living of the poorest of the poor. They become the bottom feeders in a city of remarkable poverty. Like the vulnerable everywhere, they are routinely taken advantage of by landlords and employers.

Thankfully, our leaders seem to finally be realizing that if half the energy that has been devoted to keeping the Falashmura out had been spent on resettling them, the Ethiopian aliyah would long be behind us. Unlike their predecessors, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky both support a proposal to process the 7,800 Falashmura now in Gondar and bring those who meet eligibility requirements to Israel (although the monthly quota is still in place, and may be lowered ). The Prime Minister’s Office appears to be ready to give its okay.

Let us hope that the government, which has been postponing debate on the proposal since January, will be ready to do teshuvah for our past mistakes.

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