Uriel Heilman - Falash Mura
Israel's Newest Immigrants, Who are the Falash Mura? Summer 2007 B'nai B'rith Magazine
BBM Summer 2007
Falash Mura Israel's Newest Immigrants
Who are the 'Falash Mura'?
By Uriel Heilman

It's just after dawn on a chilly Wednesday morning, and the old arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport suddenly springs to life.

The electronic doors part and dozens of wide-eyed Ethiopians pour into the deserted terminal, some holding miniature Israeli flags, others clutching their children. Israeli officials usher them past empty immigration booths and into a large room where they are given tomato-and-cheese sandwiches and cups of orange juice. Observing the scene, Indalo Tegudabaso breaks into a wide smile.

"I am very happy because my parents are living in Israel," says Tegudabaso, a young Ethiopian father of two. "I am very emotional now. It's very, very, very nice."

Tegudabaso is one of Israel's newest immigrants – one of about 150 people arriving that day from remote farming villages in Ethiopia with no electricity, running water, or toilets.

They have come a long way, many abandoning their farms and occupations as blacksmiths, potters, and weavers years ago to move closer to the Israeli officials in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa with whom their fates rest.

Unable to get by in their former occupations, the Ethiopian hopefuls rely on handouts from Jewish aid agencies to survive. Thousands live in fetid shantytowns; some have been waiting as long as eight years to make aliya.

Every month, about 300 of the more fortunate are flown to Israel. After being processed at Ben-Gurion as Israeli citizens, the Ethiopians are bused to absorption centers, where they live for up to two years while they learn Hebrew, study Judaism, and acclimate. In due course, each receives about 90 percent of the funds needed to buy a home.

It is a generous package, and one that, in the last 15 years, has attracted tens of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants.

Some Israeli and Jewish officials fear that the allure of life in Israel is so great for those desperate to escape African poverty that there will be no end to the flood of Ethiopians – eligible or not – seeking Israeli citizenship.

"Unless there's a good plan to end [the immigration], there will be more," warned Robert Goldberg, chairman of the board of the United Jewish Communities umbrella group, which has helped bankroll the aliya, on a fact-finding trip to Ethiopia in 2006. "They just want to get out of here."

The fear of endless aliya, and reports of ineligible Ethiopians trying to get to Israel, is what has made the last decade-and-a-half of Ethiopian aliya – that of the Falash Mura – so controversial.

Who They Are

The Falash Mura are Ethiopians who claim to be descendents of Jews who converted to Christianity more than a century ago to escape economic and social difficulties. The Falash Mura call themselves Beta Israel, a caste designation associated with the smith trades, which Ethiopian Jews – also called Beta Israel – traditionally performed during centuries of prohibition against land ownership.

While the Jewish state decided in the early 1980s to welcome Beta Israel who had kept their Jewish faith and identities, pejoratively called Falashas, and facilitated their aliya in Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, Israel turned away the Falash Mura, whose ancestors had abandoned Judaism generations earlier.

But, encouraged by American Jewish advocates, many Falash Mura began adopting Jewish practices in a bid to move to Israel, migrating to Gondar and Addis Ababa after Operation Solomon to petition Israeli and Jewish aid officials.

Israel reversed its policy on the Falash Mura in the mid-1990s, partly as a result of pressure from American Jewish advocates and relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel. But the aliya of the Falash Mura has been riddled with problems.

In Israel, many of the Ethiopian immigrants have found their new lives baffling and difficult. Ill-equipped for life in a Western country, many cannot find jobs; divorce rates have skyrocketed; and youths, lacking a traditional familial support system, often drop out of school, fall in with the wrong crowds, and turn their backs on their parents.

The Ethiopian community has Israel's highest suicide rate.

Israel, for its part, has found the aliya very expensive: It costs an average of $100,000 to absorb each immigrant over the course of his or her lifetime, according to government estimates.

The questions of how many potential immigrants exist among Ethiopia's 70 million people, how to keep unqualified Ethiopians from immigrating to Israel, and how to handle the high cost of absorbing the immigrants have driven Israel's ambivalence toward Ethiopian aliya.

Many Israelis, including veteran Ethiopian immigrants, say a large number of the Ethiopians coming these days are not really Jewish.

"Today, the aliya of the Falash Mura has turned into a business," says Rabbi Yitzhak Zagay, an Ethiopian community rabbi in the Israeli city of Rehovot and director of the National Committee of Ethiopian Jews. "Not all those coming are Jews. There are those who buy a Jewish identity, and those who sell a Jewish identity."

Zagay and others tell tales of sham marriages, falsified documents, and cash payouts to Ethiopian Israelis willing to fraudulently affirm ties of kinship. They say Israel has failed to stop untold numbers of non-Jewish Ethiopians from obtaining Israeli citizenship deceitfully.

Because there are no written records in Ethiopia to prove the Jewish lineage of the Falash Mura, almost all of whom were practicing Christians until they were told they had to embrace Judaism for aliya, the Falash Mura cannot immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

Rather, Israeli officials are verifying whether the Falash Mura qualify for aliya under Israel's Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate. So, rather than having to prove they are Jews, these Ethiopians must prove they are the immediate relatives of Ethiopians already in Israel.

The eligibility verification process for Ethiopian aliya has been plagued by efforts to weed out those people who are not Jewish, but know that demonstrating one's ties to Jewish kin is a way to get a free ticket out of Africa, automatic Israeli citizenship, and access to a broad array of social services in Israel.

The Interior Ministry says its careful screening process thwarts all but a handful of dishonest petitioners from getting through.

"The Population Registry invests a lot to make the work on this issue efficient," says Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad. "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."

Many aid officials see the situation differently. They say the ministry is sinking too few resources into a superficial eligibility verification process based largely on interviews that rarely disqualify aliya candidates.

So far, fewer than 10 percent of petitioners have been denied permission to make aliya, and the first significant batch of rejection notices in 15 years was delivered only this past February.

Starts and Stops

At several points in the last few years, Ethiopian aliya has slowed to a trickle while various Israeli governments quibbled over the Falash Mura's eligibility.

In February 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon managed to get his cabinet to agree to expedite the aliya of the estimated 19,000 to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia, but his interior minister, Avraham Poraz, refused to implement the decision.

As with many times in the past, American Jewish federation leaders flew to Jerusalem to try to get the aliya going again, pledging to help Israel pay for the operation. Poraz was replaced, the aliya eventually resumed, and Israel's cabinet twice reaffirmed its decision to expedite the immigration process, promising to double the aliya rate to 600 per month.

Both advocates of Falash Mura aliya and the Israeli government shared a sense of urgency about getting the remaining Falash Mura to Israel, albeit for different reasons.

The advocates-in particular, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), the New York-based organization that ran the main Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia until it was barred from the country two-and-a-half years ago following legal troubles-were interested in "rescuing" the Falash Mura as quickly as possible from their impoverished circumstances in Ethiopia.

The Israeli government, for its part, understood that the longer Falash Mura aliya went on, the more petitioners there would be.

Many remembered the lesson of 1998, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport to welcome what his government had heralded as the last planeload of Falash Mura immigrants. Within days of the ceremony, however, another 8,000 or so Falash Mura had poured into Addis Ababa and Gondar to petition for aliya. The number soon swelled to 14,000.

Some critics accused NACOEJ of encouraging the additional Ethiopians petitioners by keeping its Ethiopian aid compounds, which provide food aid, education, and employment assistance, open. NACOEJ denied that it encouraged the local population and said it kept its aid compounds open to respond to a need.

"Thousands of people were in Gondar before NACOEJ's compounds ever existed there," says Orlee Guttman, NACOEJ's director of operations.

Yet even after Israel's cabinet voted multiple times to expedite the aliya-and after the American Jewish federations committed in June 2005 to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliya and absorption as part of UJC's Operation Promise – fears of a repeat of 1998 deferred implementation of the government's decision continue.

"After these 20,000 come, there will still be people demonstrating to bring their kids, their spouses," Mike Rosenberg, former director general of the Jewish Agency's Department of Immigration and Absorption, said in 2005.

"If you ask me today how many people are waiting for aliya, I can't tell you how many," an Israeli Interior Ministry official working in Ethiopia acknowledged a year ago, in 2006. "It's hard for us to bring an answer. People are still in the villages who have not yet come."

Today, the Interior Ministry says fewer than 6,000 legitimate petitioners remain.

Finding Ethiopian Jews:
A Personal Account

By Uriel Heilman

The driver yanked on the handbrake as the river's waters reached the top of the jeep's tires. I craned my neck out the window to look down at the current.

"We can make it," I said, my eyes focused on the opposite riverbank, about 20 feet away. The driver shook his head, bellowed something in Amharic, and wrenched the gearshift into reverse.

"He says, 'No way.' We'll have to go by foot," my translator hollered from the back seat as the jeep's motor roared to life and pulled us back up onto dry land.

It was still morning, but it already had been a long day. Having flown to the Ethiopian town of Bahar Dar the previous day and spent the night in a flea-ridden hotel with sporadic running water-one of the best hotels in town, I was told-I had risen before dawn to head out to the remote villages of Ethiopia's Achefar region in search of the people who call themselves Beta Israel.

It was March 2005, and I had come to Ethiopia to investigate reports of malfeasance by the main Jewish aid group operating in that country, but I quickly realized that the far more important story concerned the dilemma of Ethiopian immigration.

The crux of the issue boiled down to two questions: Were the Falash Mura really Jewish, and how many of them actually were there?

Once in Ethiopia, I had decided to make an unscheduled visit to this remote region because I had heard there were large numbers of people still living in the countryside who called themselves Beta Israel but were not yet on Israel's lists of aliya petitioners.

If the rumors were true, then these potential immigrants represented a snag in the Israeli government's plan to end mass Ethiopian aliya with the immigration of the few thousand Falash Mura remaining in the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa.

Israeli officials tried to stop me, saying it was dangerous for a faranji-a white foreigner-to venture alone into the Ethiopia hinterlands. One Israeli official conceded that he was primarily concerned about the outcome of my visit: If the rumors were true, a foreigner like me traveling through remote villages asking questions about Israel could "awaken the villages," as he put it, and prompt thousands more people to seek tickets to Israel.

It had taken me most of the morning to reach the impassable river, having driven through dozens of tiny towns asking locals where I could find Beta Israelis.

A 10-year-old boy in a nearby village finally had offered a promising lead, and we had squeezed him into the back seat, between my translator and the policeman I had hired for security, to show us the way. Now we all stepped out of the jeep for a hike under the punishing African sun.

When we finally marched into Debr Mandr about an hour later, all activity came to a halt as the village men stopped what they were doing and stared at me, their children jostling each other to catch a glimpse of the stranger with the pale, unfamiliar face.

I was led to the village elder, a barefoot old man sitting on a rock and tending to a small fire outside one of the mud-and-straw huts between the Eucalyptus trees. He looked at me with opaque eyes and told me I was the first faranji ever to set foot in his village. I asked him if he was Beta Israel. He nodded.

Here in the sun-baked fields of western Ethiopia, miles from the closest road and in a place where daily life had changed little from the way things were 1,000 years ago, I began to find my answers.

I asked him about the Torah, Judaism, Shabbat, and the holidays, drawing nothing but blank stares. I asked him about Israel.

"Israel? Where the metallurgists and weavers go? Yes, I have heard of it," he said. "Israel means a government unto itself."

I asked him if he wanted to go there. He said he wanted to go to Israel to improve his standard of living and his deteriorating health.

But, he lamented, "Nobody has come to get me."

In other Beta Israel villages that day, and in towns and gathering places all over the region, I heard similar things.

"When I was a child, I did not hear stories about Israel," said a blacksmith named Guade Meles, who had 12 children. "Now, I hear stories about Israel from the elders. They told me there are benefits there. My cousins have gone to Israel. My wife's brothers have gone to Israel."

Meles said he reckoned there were approximately another 1,000 Beta Israel families like his in the vicinity.

Tafere Chole, a weaver from a small village in Ethiopia's Gojam province, said he wanted to go to Israel to find a better job, then return home and spread the wealth in Ethiopia.

"Maybe if my relatives come there and it is comfortable for me there, I will stay there," he said, after some reflection.

Uriel Heilman is an investigative journalist whose groundbreaking work on Ethiopian immigration to Israel earned him the coveted 2006 Boris Smolar Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting from the American Jewish Press Association. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New York, and lectures frequently to audiences around the world about Ethiopia and other issues of Jewish interest. He can be reached at www.urielheilman.com.

Who is a Jew?

The question of how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia is inextricably linked to the question of who is Jew.

Israel's rabbinate decided in 1993 that the Falash Mura are Jews under the Talmudic principle that "a Jew, even if he has sinned, is still a Jew." That is, since the Falash Mura are descendents of Jews, they qualify as Jews as long as they abandon Christianity and embrace Judaism.

EthiopiansAs a condition of their immigrating to Israel under the Law of Entry, the Ethiopians have to agree to become Jews – even those who are Christians by birth but married to Falash Mura – though, unlike converts, they do not have to pledge to be religiously observant.

All three of the major American Jewish religious streams concurred with the rabbinate and, in the NACOEJ-run aid compounds in Gondar and Addis, the Falash Mura learn rudimentary Jewish observances.

But many Israelis view the Falash Mura's claims to Jewish lineage with doubt, and skepticism has grown as the number of Ethiopians claiming to be Falash Mura has climbed vertiginously over the years.

"The first ones who came in the early 1990s, except for the fact that they practiced Christianity, they knew they were Jews. These people were called Falash Mura," says Zagay, the Ethiopian rabbi from Rehovot. "Today, they count five or six generations backward to find their link to the Jews of Ethiopia. We don't know where these people came from. We don't know if they're Jews."

"It's a process that's very hard to keep up with. It could be that many people are Christians," says 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."

It doesn't help that some of the Ethiopian immigrants can be seen getting off the planes at Ben-Gurion Airport with crosses tattooed on their foreheads.

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel who migrate to Gondar quickly learn they need to embrace Judaism as a condition of their aliya, and they adapt accordingly. But what of the probable thousands more Beta Israel still left in the Ethiopian hinterlands, cut off from Jewish aid services and not on Israel's official lists? Are these Beta Israel Jews?

I went to Ethiopia in early 2005 looking for answers [see sidebar], and when I found Beta Israel living in remote villages, I asked them about their identity.

Invariably, they explained that a Beta Israel is someone who is a blacksmith, potter, or weaver – descendants of those who, by their caste, could not own land because they were Falasha – people from a foreign land. The Beta Israel are from the "seed of Israel," many explained-the faraway place described in the Bible.

But in this, the Beta Israel are not unique; Ethiopian Christians believe they, too, are descendants of the kingdom of Israel, the children of a night of passion between Ethiopia's Queen of Sheba and Israel's King Solomon.

The Beta Israel I met knew nothing of the particularities that for centuries marked Ethiopia's Jews – Shabbat, kosher laws, the Torah, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd. The Beta Israel I met told me there were thousands more like them living in the countryside.

It is this background that has many Israelis skeptical about the Jewish credentials of the Falash Mura seeking to immigrate to Israel today.

"You can't distinguish these people today from the Christian population of Ethiopia," one Israeli Absorption Ministry official says. "That means we could be talking about 40 million people here."

Adjusting to Life in Israel

Some advocates of Ethiopian aliya charge that Israel's reluctance to bring the Falash Mura stems from racism, pointing as evidence to Israel's contrasting approach toward non-Jewish Russian immigrants.

But such charges ignore the fundamental differences between the Russians and the Ethiopians. The Russians qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they have Jewish grandparents, and once they come to Israel, they are largely self-sustaining. The Ethiopians, by contrast, cannot prove they are descendants of Jews – which is why they come under the family-reunification clause of the Law of Entry.

"I want to put an end to this lie," one Ethiopian Israeli leader in Jerusalem told me recently. "White Israelis are afraid of the charge of racism, so they continue bringing them. But if Israel brings people for humanitarian reasons, I prefer they bring the refugees from Darfur."

The Ethiopians' absorption is also more expensive and more perplexing than it is for Russians. Israel runs aliya-prep operations in Ethiopia, pays for the Ethiopians' flights to Israel, and bankrolls their first couple of years in the state – including housing, education, and home mortgages.

"People say we discriminate against black people from Ethiopia," Rosenberg said. "The truth is that we give them considerations that we do not give to other people."

The aid's effectiveness has its limits. When lifelong subsistence farmers or blacksmiths suddenly find themselves in industrialized cities in a foreign country whose native language and customs they do not understand, they're encountering a radically different world.

They must adjust to the noise of Israeli cities, adapt to a culture in which elders are ignored more often than they are revered, and even learn how to use indoor plumbing and gas stoves.

One man at an absorption center in Mevasseret Zion told me of how he grew anxious during the bus ride from the airport to his new Israeli home because he saw very few trees from which he could scavenge kindling to build a fire to cook his meals. Then he arrived at his new flat and saw the gas burners. "I realized I didn't need trees," he said with a laugh.

Earning a living wage is another matter entirely. Unable to make money from their traditional trades and with limited education and language skills, many Ethiopians find themselves limited to menial jobs. Some rely on government handouts to survive. Coming from limited means, their Israeli-born children, too, find it hard to rise out of poverty.

The cultural adjustment has been just as challenging.

"The Ethiopian community has a bit of difficulty because of the culture here, and the language," said Fereda Tayo, an Ethiopian Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1980 and now lives in Beersheva.

It has been particularly confounding for families.

"We thought that it would be like Ethiopia: The young ones would respect the elders," said Sarasat Teka, also a veteran immigrant. "But here the children don't listen. They leave the tradition. It's very aggravating. Why? I don't know. Democracy, I guess."

Typical of many Ethiopian immigrants, Teka's family fell apart in Israel. She and her husband divorced five years ago. Now she works as a janitor and lives with her mother.

Facing difficult circumstances, some of the more recent Ethiopian immigrants have fallen prey to Protestant missionaries in Israel who target the Falash Mura because their Jewish knowledge is relatively limited.

Immigration Continues

Ethiopians holding family photosEven though Israel never followed through on its decision to accelerate Ethiopian aliya, a steady stream of 300 Ethiopians per month continues to immigrate to Israel. This has brought the number of prospective immigrants on the Interior Ministry's lists down from the 19,000 to 26,000 spoke of in Sharon's time to about 5,000 to 6,000 today.

At this point, says Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, it doesn't much matter whether the rate is accelerated to 600 immigrants per month or not.

"Within another two years, the current aliya of the Falash Mura will be over anyway," he said. "It's a matter of 20 months."

There are some signs, however, that advocates for aliya will not end their efforts once the Interior Ministry's list is exhausted.

In January, a coalition of Ethiopian Israeli advocacy groups demanded in a letter that Jewish aid services in Ethiopia be extended to an additional 8,000 people. The letter's primary signatory, Avraham Neguise, director of the South Wing to Zion advocacy group, called the Ethiopians "an integral part of our community."

"Many of them have first-degree relatives in Israel or in the compound in Gondar," Neguise wrote. "The UJC and the Interior Ministry are suddenly saying there are 7,800, but they ignored the villages. They focused only on those on the lists in Addis Ababa and Gondar. We're asking that these people who came from their villages over the last two years also receive help."

Could 2008 be a repeat of 1998, when Falash Mura aliya appeared to be over, only to restart again with tens of thousands more immigrants to Israel?

In a recent interview with Israel's daily Yediot Achronot, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin offered his prognosis.

"You're naive; the immigration will never end," Mesfin said.