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August 07, 1992 - Image 33

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-08-07

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

Photo by Aliza Auerba ch/Jafi Commu n ications

BACKGROUND

LARRY DERFNER



Israel Correspondent

N

intewab Brahani, a
Jew from Ethiopia,
made it to Israel in
► 1984 with her three children
and two of her sisters. Mrs.
Brahani's parents and her
four other brothers and
sisters, on the other hand,
have been stuck in a corn-
pound in Addis Ababa for
over two years, waiting to
immigrate to Israel. They
are not considered Jews, but
"Falash-mura" — Amharic
for "Jewish Christians," or
Jews who converted to
Christianity.
Some 3,000 Falash-mura
are in the compound, run by
an American advocacy group
for Ethiopian Jewry and the
Distribution Com-
IP Joint
mittee. The life there is in-
decent; four people died re-
cently in a single week, said
Rahamim Elazar, Israel's
best-known Ethiopian Jew-
ish • activist. Another 1,200
r. or so Falash- mura are living
as beggars on the streets of
Addis Ababa, having arrived
from Ethiopia's Gondar
province too late to be ac-
cepted into the compound.
"It hurts me terribly that
• they're not here," Mrs.
Brahani said of her family
left behind. At her home in
Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv,
• she said, "I was so happy
during Operation Solomon
(the mass airlift of Ethiopian
Jews to Israel in May 1991).
I was sure they would be
coming, but they didn't."
The Falash-mura
originated in the 1860s,
when Ethiopia's King
Johannes began forcing
Jews to convert to Chris-
For a century after-
ty
ward, missionaries con-
tinued the work, sometimes
offering food to starving
Jews if they would accept
► Jesus. The Falash-mura
generally lived in their own
o. villages, apart from the
Jews, but there was some
mixing. Besides the roughly
4,200 in Addis Ababa, there

One group of Ethiopian Jews sang during their flight to Israel in Operation Solomon.

They Are Still Apart

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Israel are
waiting for relatives, classified as Christians,
languishing in Addis Ababa.

are anywhere from 10,000 to
30,000 more in the villages.
On Monday, July 27, the
last scheduled flight of Ethi-
opian Jews arrived in Israel,
carrying 39' new immi-
grants. At the World Zionist
Congress in Jerusalem that
week, WZO leaders declared
that the Ethiopian aliya was
finished, save for some 300
Jews, in the villages of
Gondar, who would be
emigrating in the fall, once
the rainy season ends and
they are able to make the
journey to Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Jews heard
about this declaration, and
dozens of them came to pro-
test outside the WZO con-
vention hall. They carried
photographs of family mem-
bers waiting in Addis
Ababa. They held up signs
reading, "Operation
Solomon is not over."
Israel's Ethiopian Jews
have many complaints —
unemployment, poverty,
alienation from Israeli socie-
ty — but for thousands of
them, their first complaint,
the wound that hurts them
the worst, is that their
families are still torn apart.
A few immigrants have
committed suicide because of

the separation and many
others suffer severe depres-
sion from this cause, said
Mr. Elazar.
Avraham Neguise, an-
other prominent Ethiopian
Jewish activist in Israel,
says all the Falash-mura in
the compound have immedi-
ate family ties among Ethio-
pian immigrants here. A
spokesman for the Jewish
Agency, which coordinated
the Ethiopian aliya, couldn't
vouch for that assessment.

Israel is taking its
time deciding this
issue, but the basic
good will does
seem to be there.

But he allowed that many of
the Falash-mura have im-
mediate family in Israel, and
that some are probably
every bit as Jewish as the E-
thiopians here. Hundreds of
Falash-mura "tricked" their
way onto Operation Solomon
and are living in Israel now,
Mr. Elazar pointed out.
Why, then, were some E-
thiopians pronounced Jews
and put on planes to Israel,

and some, even if they were
from the same family,
classified as Falash-mura
and left in Addis Ababa? E-
thiopians in Israel say the
choice was made in dis-
orderly fashion, with
unreliable documentation,
by Jewish Agency super-
visors who based their deci-
sions on a 1976 census of the
Ethiopian Jewish popula-
tion, and on the recommen-
dations of kesim, or Ethiopi-
an Jewish spiritual leaders.
Mrs. Brahani can't figure
out why her parents and four
siblings weren't allowed to
leave on Operation Solomon.
When she was growing up in
a mixed Jewish-Christian
village, everyone in the
family knew they were Jew-
ish; and so did their
neighbors. "The Chris-
tians," she .said, "used to
curse us as `falashas' " — an
epithet, meaning
"outsiders," used against E-
thiopian Jews. "That's how
we knew we were Jewish."
The question of who is a
Falash-mura and who is a
Jew is a confounding one.
Which of them really con-
verted, and which did not?
Isn't starvation — or in-
nocence — a mitigating cir-

cumstance in a conversion?
How can one half of a family
be called Jewish and the
other half not?
And finally, with these
broken families suffering as
they do, does it really matter
if the Ethiopians in Addis
Ababa are Christians or
Jews? Israel's Law of Return
gives any Jew the • right to
live in Israel as a citizen, ex-
cept for certain classes of
Jews including criminals,
Nazi collaborators and those
who converted out of the
faith. Howeve'r, there is
nothing in the Law of
Return or any other Israeli
law that forbids Christians
from coming to live in Israel
and applying later for
citizenship. Why can't the
Falash-mura with immedi-
ate family in Israel be
brought over, and let the re-
ligious complications be
sorted out afterward?
Israel is taking its time
deciding, or not deciding,
this issue, but the basic good
will does seem to be there.
The previous Israeli
government, the Chief Rab-
binate and the Jewish Agen-
cy held the informal position
that Falash-mura with im-
mediate family in Israel
should be taken in. The Jew-
ish Agency says it will carry
out whatever plan the new
government decides on. Yet
the new government, it
seems, has other, more
pressing issues on its mind.
In the meantime,
Nintewab Brahani
exchanges letters with her
parents and four brothers
and sisters. "They tell me
it's very hard in the com-
pound. They ask me to ex-
plain to the Jewish Agency
that they are Jews, that they
come from the same village
as I. I tell them I've tried,
and they tell me maybe I'm
not explaining it well
enough.
"They're lost over there,"
Mrs. Brahani said. "I'm
afraid something is going to
happen to them if they don't
get out of Addis Ababa, but I
don't know if they will." ❑

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

33

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