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August 18, 1989 - Image 40

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-08-18

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Ethiopians protest the ruling.

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n their first Shabbat
in Israel, many Ethio-
pians watched the
drivers speeding by in their
cars, the cafe patrons order-
ing coffee and cake, and the
sunbathers at the beach, and
asked, "Are these Jews?"
Devoutly religious in
Ethiopia, one of the many ad-
justments the Ethiopians had
to make after their aliyah
was learning to accept the
heterogeneous nature of Is-
raeli society. Most of Israel's
Ethiopian Jews arrived in the
1980s. The long and often
enigmatic history of Ethiop-
ian Jews, the structure of
their society, and their strug-
gle for acceptance by the
Israeli religious establish-
ment was the subject of a lec-
ture recently by Shoshana
Ben-Dor of Jerusalem's Ben-
Zvi Institute.
"Most Ethiopian Jews are
desirous of being accepted in
Israeli society and as reli-
gious Jews," Ben-Dor said.
"So they have accepted rab-'
binic Judaism."
This, despite their form of
Judaism that in several re-
spects is at odds with Ortho-
dox Judaism, and despite the
Israel Rabbinate's insistence
that the Ethiopians undergo
a symbolic conversion to en-
sure their Jewishness, Ben-
Dor said.
Only the Ethiopian prac-
tices of conversion and divorce
contradict rabbinic Judaism,
Ben-Dor said. According to
Halachah, if conducted incor-
rectly these practices could af-
fect the Jewishness of later
generations.
So when in 1973 then-Chief
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that
Ethiopian Jews were indeed
Jewish, despite the communi-
ty's uncertain origins and

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questionable religious prac-
tices, he stipulated that all
Ethiopian olim must undergo
a symbolic conversion. The
rite included immersionin a
mikveh for men and women,
and a symbolic circumcision
for men, in which a drop of
blood is spilled. Such a con-
version would rectify any non-
Halachic rites of passage in
even the dim past of Ethio-
pian history.
"lb the rabbis it was a great
concession," Ben-Dor said.
The Ethiopians were in-
sulted. Many went through
with the ceremony anyway;
others refused.
In 1985, the Rabbinate
decided that only immersion
would be necessary. Rabbi
Yosef subsequently reversed
his earlier ruling upon lear-
ning of the anger the re-
quirements caused. He decid-
ed the symbolic conversion
would not be necessary. "Un-
fortunately, by then he was no
longer chief rabbi," Ben-Dor
said.
During The High Holidays
in 1985, Ethiopians staged a
32-day sit-down strike in front
of the Chief Rabbinate to pro-
test the symbolic conversion.
Their argument was, "Either
we're Jews or we're not," Ben-
Dor said.
Such public pressure is
often enough to change
political thinking in Israel.
Pressure tactics were enough
to remove the need for sym-
bolic conversion of the Bene
Israel Jews of India when
they immigrated in the
1950s. In the case of the
Ethiopians, the pressure fail-
ed. Ben-Dor said the reason
was that the Ethiopians had
a strong independent
religious tradition, something
the Bene Israel lacked.
"The rabbis didn't cave in
(to the Ethiopians) because
they said if they accepted the

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