Last June, when the Israeli government airlifted 58 Christianized Ethiopian Jews (known as Falash Mura) from a refugee camp in Addis Ababa to Jerusalem, immigration officials declared it “the final load” in a series of Ethiopian evacuation operations stretching back to 1984. The compound where immigrants had been kept would be closed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, and future immigration applications would be handled through normal channels.
But, as Abraham Rabinovich reports in the American Jewish magazine Moment (Dec. 1998), somebody forgot to tell the Falash Mura. Within days, thousands of refugees streamed into Addis Ababa in hopes of immigrating to Israel. More than 8,000 now await action by an Israeli government suddenly enmeshed in a bitter immigration struggle that holds little promise of resolution.
That the Falash Mura are descendants of Jews is undisputed; they broke away from the Ethiopian Jewish community (or Falasha) and began converting to Christianity more than a century ago. And under the Israeli Law of Return, which allows anyone with at least a single Jewish grandparent to immigrate, these Ethiopians should be welcomed into the country (indeed, thousands already have been). But Israeli immigration experts are now contesting the Ethiopians' Jewish credentials. “They didn't just identify as Christians, they lived Christian lives,” says Micha Feldman of the Jewish Agency. “They went to church and were buried in Christian cemeteries and lived in a Christian environment.”
Others charge that the Falash Mura are simply economic opportunists, poised to cash in on distant Jewish roots to escape from one of the poorest countries in the world. Israeli officials, who airlifted in more than 20,000 Ethiopians with clear Jewish credentials during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, are wary of setting a precedent that would make the country a magnet for impoverished immigrants with ambiguous Jewish ancestry. After finally allowing 5,000 Falash Mura to immigrate during the past two years, they have decided to draw the line.
But advocates argue that the widespread Christian conversions among the Falash Mura are understandable given the rampant persecution of Jews in Ethiopia. In Israel, they would be free to embrace Judaism once again, as most of the 8,000 to 10,000 Falash Mura there have done.
This emphasis on an untarnished Jewish lineage may, in fact, be a smoke screen. A Refugees International report by former U.S. diplomat Larry Thompson cites sources claiming that as many as 40 percent of the 8,000 Falash Mura now gathered at Addis Ababa may legally qualify for immigration under Israeli law. But Israeli authorities are imposing more restrictive and complex policies on Ethiopians than they are on Jews from other countries, he argues. The contrast to the welcome Israel has extended to Russian immigrants is particularly stark. “In Russia, dozens of Israeli emissaries are searching with magnifying glasses for Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews,” notes Yossi Schwartz in Hadassah magazine (Nov. 1998). That level of scrutiny has not been applied in Ethiopia.
To integrate largely illiterate Falash Mura villagers into Israeli society obviously requires straddling a huge cultural gap. And the reluctance to absorb more Ethiopians may stem partially from the daunting challenges of resettlement: Poverty and unemployment among Ethiopians in Israel are distressingly high. “Attitudes might well be different if the Falash Mura community consisted mostly of computer programmers and engineers and if potential Russian immigrants were mostly impoverished illiterates,” writes Rabinovich.
Still, the Falash Mura are intent on immigrating: They have left their villages and traveled to Addis Ababa expecting to secure passage. They have few other options. Whether or not Israel perceives the Falash Mura to be Jewish, their Christian neighbors in Ethiopia do. And that, Thompson explains, leaves the Falash Mura vulnerable to the persecution endured by Ethiopian Jews over the past several hundred years. Judaic Ethiopians, including the Falash Mura, are commonly called “Falasha”—a derogatory term meaning “stranger” or “immigrant”—by Ethiopians.
And what do they call themselves? The House of Israel.