Falash Mura immigrants bound for Israel

A group of Falash Mura arrive in Israel in August 2013. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Around 1000 Ethiopians whose ancestors converted to Christianity are to move to Israel and convert to Judaism.

An Israeli government committee has just taken the decision to bring them to Israel and fund their absorption, and Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog is calling for thousands more people to be brought.

The Ethiopians belong to the Falash Mura community, whose forebears converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. They see their desire to reconnect to Judaism and move to Israel as historic, and so do their advocates in Israel.

“It’s a unique historic issue, as in the days of the Marranos,” said Menachem Waldman, an Israeli rabbi, likening the Falash Mura to Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity and, in cases, later returned to Judaism.

Israel’s Prime Minister said, when announcing that 1000 people will immigrate, that the Falash Mura represent a “precious community, which is part of our people and part of our state”.

But their case hasn’t been a simple one. As their families became Christians they don’t qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return, and they have been moving to Israel for the last 25 years in fits and starts, following various government decisions.

Tens of thousands have emigrated (and converted to Judaism upon arrival), but their advocates say it is not enough, as 8000 more are waiting to move, some of whom have been separated from parents and children, who have already become Israelis.

Many live in or close to special compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa where they have been learning about Judaism and preparing to emigrate. They learn Hebrew, study traditional texts, and mark Shabbat and holidays with communal prayers. These activities have received heavy funding from Diaspora Jewish organisations, especially in America.

Lobbyists say that they face an uphill struggle in getting the Israeli government to arrange emigration, and while they welcome the latest decision, they argue it’s too little too late.

Waldman told The AJN he considers it “unbelievable” that through Jewish history communities welcomed returnees but, given the same opportunity, the Jewish State is being lethargic. The Ethiopian-born Knesset member Avraham Neguise who spearheads the campaign for Falash Mura immigration welcomed the latest decision but vowed, “Our ­struggle will continue.”

Neguise has strong support, including that of Herzog, who has said he is planning an “intense” public campaign. But the Falash Mura lobby also faces objections from within government and the civil service.

Israel organised various waves of Falash Mura immigration – in 1993, 1998, 2008, and 2013 – on each occasion believing it was the last cohort. Some officials and politicians believe that however many Falash Mura move to Israel, there will always be more claiming Falash Mura heritage and asking to immigrate.

There is also some opposition in the mainstream community of Ethiopian Jews.

Danny Adeno Abebe, an Ethiopian-born Israeli journalist, has written articles lambasting Israel’s acceptance of Falash Mura, and even claimed that there is “no greater lie than theirs”. While some early immigrants had connections to Judaism, he argues those wanting to come today are Christians wanting to move to Israel for economic reasons.

“I don’t understand this decision of the Israeli government,” Adeno Abebe told The AJN. He also questioned the motives of Diaspora Jews who support Falash Mura, suggesting that American Jews do so to prove their multicultural credentials.

“This is economic ‘aliyah’, not because they are really Jews.” He argued that “Netanyahu knows they are not really Jews,” but plans to bring them because of ­”politics”.