April 8, 2005
But are they Jews?

By URIEL HEILMAN
GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

For many Israelis concerned about the cost and prudence of Israel's absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, the real question is whether or not those coming today are Jews.

As with nearly everything else concerning the Beta Israel remaining today in Ethiopia - known in Israel as Falash Mura - the answer is not a simple one.

To be eligible for aliya under Israel's Law of Entry, the Israeli government requires that the Ethiopians demonstrate a link to Jewish ancestry through their mother and a commitment to returning to Judaism. The Interior Ministry is responsible for verifying applicants' eligibility.

The principle, says Rabbi Menachem Waldman, is that a person of Jewish lineage is a Jew so long as his maternal ancestral line is Jewish - even if his ancestors converted to Christianity 10 generations ago and have been practicing Christianity ever since. That is, Judaism is measured by blood, not practice - even if the person does not know that he or she is a Jew.

"A Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew," Waldman said, citing an oft-quoted halachic dictum. "It is a mitzva to bring him back to Judaism." Once such people decide to return to the Jewish fold, they immediately are considered Jews, even if they do not commit to being religiously observant, Waldman explained.

The question, then, is how the Interior Ministry verifies the lineage of those claiming to be Beta Israel, according to the standards set by the government's February 2003 decision to bring these olim.

"The real challenge is in the decisions of the professionals of the Interior Ministry," said Ori Konforti, the Jewish Agency for Israel's representative in Addis Ababa. "If they don't do a good job on this, this decision won't be worth the paper it's written on. The weakest link is if the Interior Ministry can bring this thing to an end."

Adugna Biruk, the Interior Ministry's lone representative in Ethiopia, works out of a modest building in a quiet neighborhood of Gondar interviewing candidates for aliya. The process is slow and painstaking. He asks the Ethiopians about their family, their ages and their villages of origin, and he checks the information against what ministry officials in Israel have garnered from relatives and previous interviews. Sometimes, he says, the aliya candidates undergo fictitious marriages or "adopt" children in an effort to get more people to Israel.

The ministry knows who is a Jew by their villages of origin and family clan, Biruk says, based on information provided by Ethiopian elders - known as shmagle - in Israel.

"The elders of the tribe know these areas - it's an Ethiopian phenomenon," Waldman said. "They know all the dynasties. They know whether a person is from the seed of Israel or a not."

Even though most Beta Israel in Ethiopia have been practicing Christians for a century or more, Waldman says almost none of them married native Ethiopian Christians because ordinary Ethiopians viewed the Beta Israel as a lowly caste and for the most part refused to marry the Beta Israel. That has changed only in the last generation or two, and even today the intermarriage rate is only about 15 percent, Waldman claims.

"In most places and at a vast majority, they kept inmarrying because the goyim kept looking at them as Beta Israel, as Falasha," Waldman said. "My experience is that in the villages themselves, the percentage of intermarriages is very small - a few percent, and a generation or two ago there were virtually none."

But others say Waldman's statistics are based on misinformation, and that a far greater percentage of Beta Israel have married Christian women - rendering their descendants non-Jewish and ineligible for aliya according to criteria set by an Israeli cabinet decision in February 2003.

"It's a process that's very hard to keep up with. It could be that many people are Christians," said an official in Israel's Absorption Ministry. "A Falash Mura can be a person from many different backgrounds. It's such a hodgepodge these days."

A group of former schoolteachers from the compound of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry said many Beta Israel became soldiers during Ethiopia's civil wars and married Christians, and many of those who have moved to the cities from their villages have done the same.

Today, the intermarriage rate among the Falash Mura in the cities is near 50 percent, Konforti estimated.

Of course, Falash Mura are a good catch these days for Ethiopians looking to get married. Not only may they get a husband or a wife, they could also get a ticket out of Africa. That's one reason why some Israeli officials are concerned about Israel's two- and-a-half-year timetable for bringing the immigrants. It's also why single Falash Mura of marriageable age are in such high demand among local Ethiopian Christians in Addis and Gondar. The longer the process takes, the more potential people Israel may have to grant aliya status.

Biruk says his investigations are thorough, and it is largely on the basis of his recommendations that the Interior Ministry makes its decisions about applicants' eligibility. "I'm not just interviewing them. I'm interrogating them like the police," Biruk says.

But some Israeli officials close to the process say the ministry is botching the investigative process, sinking too much time and too few resources into a superficial interview regimen that rarely disqualifies aliya candidates. The stakes are very high, they point out, given the massive cost in Israel of absorbing each immigrant.

"We're not investing in a deep-tissue probe," one Israeli aid worker said. "The investigations don't ask any questions about Judaism; they only ask about family ties." Some point out that while Israel requires meticulous documentation from Russians seeking to immigrate to Israel, only Ethiopians are allowed to immigrate with virtually no documentary proof.

Many of those in Israel today do not even claim to be from the "seed of Israel." They are native Ethiopian Christians, parents and siblings and children and cousins of Christians who married Falash Mura, moved to Israel before the government tightened its immigration restrictions for Ethiopians, and now want to bring their entire extended families to their new home.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said the government decision does not permit the ministry to do a deep-tissue probe, but that the ministry's investigations are thorough.

"The Population Registry invests a lot to make the work on this issue efficient," Sabine Haddad said. "Decisions are made regarding the eligibility of families in accordance with the information that is gathered in Israel and Ethiopia, and in the course of these investigations families also have been found to be ineligible for aliya."

One Israeli official said that, ultimately, it doesn't really matter whether or not the olim are technically Jewish, so long as they convert upon arrival and Israel absorbs them properly. "He's not Jewish? So he will become Jewish. That's the major force operating here," the official said.

But the JDC's Ami Bergman warned that Israel's absorption of these immigrants ultimately would fail if it brought large numbers of Christians. Already, polls in Israel show 43 percent of Israelis are unwilling to marry, or have their children marry, Ethiopian immigrants.

"If it gets out that many of these Ethiopians are not Jews, they will not be able to be absorbed," Bergman said. "A successful absorption in Israel is absorption of Jews."