Squalor and shrinking hope for Ethiopian Jews

GONDAR, Ethiopia Tue Mar 27, 2007 7:36pm EDT

An Ethiopian child, whose roots are said to trace back to Judaism, is fed by her mother at a feeding centre in Gondor, Ethiopia March 8, 2007, while awaiting immigration to Israel. Thousands of Ethiopians who say their Jewish roots entitle them to live in Israel are stuck in a squalid camp in Ethiopia, their dream of a promised land fading as Israel scrutinises their family ties. Picture taken March 8, 2007. To match feature ETHIOPIA-JEWS/ REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

An Ethiopian child, whose roots are said to trace back to Judaism, is fed by her mother at a feeding centre in Gondor, Ethiopia March 8, 2007, while awaiting immigration to Israel. Thousands of Ethiopians who say their Jewish roots entitle them to live in Israel are stuck in a squalid camp in Ethiopia, their dream of a promised land fading as Israel scrutinises their family ties. Picture taken March 8, 2007. To match feature ETHIOPIA-JEWS/

Credit: Reuters/Eliana Aponte

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GONDAR, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Thousands of Ethiopians who say their Jewish roots entitle them to live in Israel are stuck in a squalid camp in Ethiopia, their dream of a promised land fading as Israel scrutinizes their family ties.

Known as "Falashas Mura", the descendants of Ethiopian Jews have reverted to Judaism since their late 18th and 19th century forbears converted to Christianity, sometimes under duress.

Tens of thousands of practicing Ethiopian Jews or Falashas -- which means "outsiders" in Ethiopia's Amharic language -- were airlifted to Israel in dramatic, top-secret operations in the 1980s and 1990s after a rabbinical ruling that they were direct descendants of the biblical Jewish Dan tribe.

By 1998, Israel said it had brought all of Ethiopia's Jews home to the Jewish state but another rabbinical ruling that year complicated matters by also recognizing as Jews those Falashas Mura -- converted outsiders -- who revert to Judaism.

That spawned a special law allowing Falashas Mura with immediate relatives in Israel to immigrate, stopping short of recognizing them under the ‘law of return' which gives Israeli citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world.

"Basically we are speaking about a law which is aimed at family unifications, I don't know of any similar law, any similar system, worldwide," said Israel's Ambassador to Ethiopia, Yaacov Amitai.

Since the law was passed small numbers of Falashas Mura every month have been emigrating to Israel.

But now Israel -- a country built on immigration which says it houses about 110,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent -- has finalized a list of the last to be brought in.

That would leave thousands -- estimates range from 8,000 to 16,000 -- in Gondar's sprawling, filthy camp and the surrounding villages.

Many people in the camps have been waiting for years in cramped mud shacks with no running water or basic sanitation, depending on food donations to survive. Families have been split up, only some of their number allowed into Israel.

Israel has criticized the volunteer groups and charities that have been supporting the camp at Gondar, saying they raised false hopes for thousands of Ethiopians -- many of whom have no connection with the Falashas.

But the camps represent a glimmer of hope for the thousands who have left their villages in search of a better life.

"I want to go to Israel and change my life, I'm not happy here," said 9-year-old Maskaram Achinef, helping her mother sort through grain on the dusty ground, an open sewer flowing just meters away.

"I need a clean house and a good school. This is what will make me happy."

She is lucky. After seven years in the camp her family recently heard they will be allowed to emigrate before the end of next year. Many of their neighbors are still waiting: the Interior Ministry has said more than 6,000 'Falashas Mura' will be allowed in by the end of 2008.

But those who are left face an uncertain future in Ethiopia -- living on the margins of society in the Horn of Africa's grinding cycle of war and famine -- because they fail to meet Israel's current definition of who is a Jew and of who has a right to live in the Holy Land.

DOUBLE STANDARDS?

The Falashas Mura have vocal supporters in Israel, including religious groups and human rights campaigners, who are lobbying for an accelerated immigration program like the one for hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants in the early 1990s.

Some have accused the Israeli government of racist double standards for encouraging Russians to immigrate, while complicating and delaying the Ethiopians' entry.

But senior Ethiopian leaders in Israel support a swift end to the Falashas Mura immigration, amid concerns that some have feigned conversion to Judaism -- or arranged marriages of convenience -- for the chance to move to Israel.

"Those that do not belong religiously we have no intention, as Ethiopian Jews, to bring them to the state of Israel because afterwards it will create social, religious problems amongst ourselves," said Adiso Masala, a former Israeli legislator who heads the Ethiopian Immigrants Association.

"It is not enough to airlift people in planes to Israel while those that have immigrated have not yet been absorbed," said Masala, referring to the hardships and social exclusion felt by many in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel.

HOPE AND ANGER

Some of the Falashas Mura whose names do not appear on the list of approved immigrants still hope a change in Israel's political or religious leadership could herald a policy review.

But that hope easily turns to anger. Representatives from Israel's Interior Ministry were chased away from the Falashas Mura compound in Addis Ababa last month as they tried to hand-deliver rejection letters to immigration applicants.

The Falashas have been an isolated group ever since they emerged in the region in pre-Christian times.

Ancient records showed they were barred from owning land and hardly ever married outside the community. In 1668, the country's then Emperor Yohannes I issued a decree ordering them to live apart from Christians in their own village.

In modern times the legal constraints disappeared but the separation persisted. Mulugeta Kebede, an Ethiopian army veteran who now works as a guard, said: "Nobody hated them. But they kept apart from us. They never married a Christian or a Muslim."

Popular feelings about the group never descended to anti-Semitism, mainly because most Ethiopians outside the Falasha community also claim an ancestral link to Israel.

According to legend, Ethiopia's Queen of Sheba visited Israel's King Solomon and had a son with him. The son went back to Ethiopia to become the country's first Emperor, and every feudal leader since has traced a blood link back to the wise king of Israel.

Whatever their ancient connections, many people in the camp in Gondar fear this bad news from Israel is only the beginning: they are concerned by reports that Ethiopian officials are considering shutting it down.

Without the possibility of one day immigrating to Israel they face life on the margins -- forever outsiders in Ethiopia.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Heavens in Addis Ababa)

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