April 8, 2005

Distant relations

By URIEL HEILMAN
BIKOLO, ETHIOPIA

Here in the sun-baked fields of western Ethiopia, miles from the closest road and in a place where daily life has changed little from the way things were a thousand years ago, lies what could be Israel's next big immigration dilemma.

A cluster of mud-and-straw huts stands between a few Eucalyptus trees, their occupants wandering in and out of compact homes to tend to small fires. A woman is bent over an incipient clay pot, her mud-covered hands moving quickly to shape the wet earth into a new jug.

Not far away, a few dozen men work barefoot in the field, cutting hay for the roof of their church. They work methodically, some tying the hay in bundles while others cut it down using sickles worn down from years of use.

Everything stops when a visitor approaches-the first faranji, or white foreigner, ever to set foot in these parts, according to village elders. The children run into the fields to catch a glimpse of the stranger, jostling for position to stare at the pale, unfamiliar face. Many of them gasp and giggle when the faranji's hat comes off to reveal hair that more closely resembles that of a mule, they say, than a man.

It has not been easy to reach this village, more than 100 kilometers from the closest city. It took several hours of traveling, beginning at dawn in a small city with an airport with intermittent electrical power, then over asphalt and dirt roads in a 4x4 vehicle, then through fields with no road at all. Travel by jeep finally came to a halt at a river the vehicle could not cross, and the remainder of the journey had to be undertaken on foot over dry, brown fields the gathering storm clouds later would turn into a morass of unyielding mud.

This remote village is not particularly large by the standards of rural Ethiopia: 50 or 60 households, each with up to a dozen children. But the village is well known in the surrounding area because all its residents share a unique identity. They are all Beta Israel.

Pretty much everyone around these parts agrees on what that means. Beta Israel are blacksmiths or potters or weavers, descendents 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," the people explain, the faraway place described in the Bible.

But in this the Beta Israel are not unique; many Ethiopian natives believe they, too, are descendents of the kingdom of Israel. The former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled from 1930 to 1974, claimed he was a direct descendent of King Solomon and was called the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

What makes these Ethiopians distinct is that many people in Israel and the United States believe they are Jews. And these Beta Israel, living in the Achefar region of Ethiopia, say they want to emigrate to Israel-just like their compatriots who already have moved to the Jewish state, where they have been christened Falash Mura.

"We have heard some Beta Israel have gone to Israel," says Tafere Chole, 30, a weaver from a small village not far from Bikolo, in Ethiopia's Gojam province. "I want to go to Israel to see if there are better jobs there, and come back here and spread the wealth here for the good of the people."

"Maybe if my relatives come there and it is comfortable for me there I will stay there," he hastens to add.

Like many of those interviewed by the Post, Chole said he was unaware he needed to petition the Israeli authorities formally in order to get permission to immigrate.

The Beta Israel in Achefar represent some of the probable tens of thousands of Ethiopians hoping to make aliya who have not yet been accounted for by the Israeli government or the Jewish aid groups advocating for Ethiopian aliya. They live in remote villages that don't generally appear on maps, and unlike the Beta Israel who live closer to major Ethiopian cities like Gondar, few of these Beta Israel ever have ventured far beyond their rural homes.

The Jerusalem Post discovered them last month in a special investigation conducted over the course of several weeks, spanning three continents, and including interviews with dozens of Ethiopians in Africa and Israel, Israeli government officials and Jewish aid workers.

The existence of these isolated Beta Israel communities may pose a serious challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision in January to end mass aliya from Ethiopia by the end of 2007 with a maximum of 20,000 more Ethiopian olim.

In a country of 65 million, it's possible that the Beta Israel left in Ethiopia number in the hundreds of thousands, not the thousands, and that Israel has seen only the tip of the iceberg of Ethiopian aliya, some warn.

The fear some Israeli officials express privately is that if Ethiopia's former emperor claimed Jewish descent, what's to stop tens of millions of Ethiopians today from doing the same so they can escape the poverty of Africa for the relative wealth of Israel?

"You can't distinguish these people today from the Christian population of Ethiopia," one Israeli Absorption Ministry official knowledgeable about the issue said of the Ethiopians claiming to be Beta Israel. "That means we could be talking about 40 million people here."

Once, the Beta Israel lived completely separate from other Ethiopians, working others' fields for money and engaging in the types of craftsmanship native Ethiopians looked down upon. Forbidden from owning land, Jews became blacksmiths and potters-professions Ethiopians traditionally viewed with superstition because of their use of fire.

Today, however, with Ethiopia's feudal caste system largely collapsed, these Beta Israel are virtually indistinguishable from their neighbors except by their profession. Today, they too can own land. They go to the same Christian churches as their neighbors, they marry Christians, and many of them live in villages and towns that are not wholly Beta Israel.

It is largely for these reasons that when Israel was rescuing Jews from Ethiopia's famine and civil war in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, successive Israeli prime ministers decided to leave these Beta Israel behind, unconvinced they were Jews.

Those whom Israel brought also went by the appellation Beta Israel, but they were people who identified as Jews, kept the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated the Jewish holidays described in the Bible and even had their own Torahs-albeit in Geez, an Ethiopian Semitic tongue.

They were called Falasha, and to distinguish them from the Beta Israel who lacked any vestiges of the Jewish faith, Israel began calling those it left behind the Falash Mura. By 1991, the only Ethiopians of Jewish descent left in Ethiopia were the Falash Mura.

Historians say the Falasha and the Falash Mura come from the same Jewish ancestors. But whereas the Falasha stuck to their Jewish traditions despite social and economic discrimination that kept them from owning land and defined them as perennial outsiders, the Falash Mura converted to Christianity in the 19th and early 20th centuries to escape economic and social hardships.

Today, their identification as Beta Israel is one of caste, not religion.

The Falash Mura living today in remote Ethiopian villages remember virtually nothing of their Jewish legacy. In dozens of interviews the Post conducted in the Ethiopian countryside, the Beta Israel there showed no familiarity whatsoever with any aspects of Judaism. That was not true, however, for the people who had visited aid compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (Nacoej), which teaches Ethiopian migrants from the villages about Judaism and Israel.

In the countryside, the Beta Israel describe themselves as Christians. They wear crosses around their necks, sport crosses as tattoos on their foreheads, have pictures of the Virgin Mary hanging in their homes and say they dutifully attend church services. They have never heard of the Torah, know nothing of any Jewish holidays and do not identify as Jews. Many have married Christians not from the Beta Israel caste.

But in recent years many of them have learned something new about what it means to be Beta Israel: that many Beta Israel have left their pastoral homes for the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa, where faranji have come to take them to Israel-a land rich with opportunity, money and jobs.

"When I was a child I did not hear stories about Israel," said Guade Meles, 45, a blacksmith from the town of Ismallah who identifies as Beta Israel. "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 has 12 children and a total of 17 family members living in his house.

Much has changed since Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir barred the Falash Mura from coming to Israel in 1991 during Operation Solomon.

Immigration restrictions have eased as the 2,000 to 3,000 Falash Mura who managed to slip into Israel during Operation Solomon have pressed the government to allow their relatives to join them in Israel. Their cause has been helped by American Jewish advocacy groups, most notably Nacoej, which successfully persuaded Israel's chief rabbis to rule that the Falash Mura are Jews. And Israel's own need for immigrants factored into the government's decision to accept tens of thousands more olim from Ethiopia.

"Aliya is the backbone of our existence," one Israeli diplomat explained. "It's the justification for the State of Israel. It's why we have a state."

In the last decade and a half, at least 25,000 Falash Mura have emigrated to the Jewish state.

In recognition of the difficulty of establishing the Jewish lineage of these immigrants, however, the Israeli government has been bringing them not under the Law of Return, which is aimed at Jews, but under the Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to allow immigration for the purposes of family reunification. [See sidebar to this story]

All the Falash Mura have been required to convert upon immigrating to Israel.

Meanwhile, many Ethiopians seeking to make aliya-including those who are both lifelong Beta Israel and practicing Christians-have been adopting Jewish practices at the compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar run by Nacoej.

Nacoej says it established the compounds in Gondar and Addis after Ethiopians migrated there from their rural farming villages to petition Israeli government representatives stationed in those cities for permission to immigrate. But many observers say the 23-year-old organization-whether intentionally or not-encouraged Ethiopians to migrate by maintaining the compounds and keeping them open at one point in 1998 when they had been left virtually empty due to emigration to Israel.

These critics say Nacoej had a hand in turning communities of self-sustaining farmers and craftsmen into impoverished people dependent upon aid groups for urban survival. Had the Beta Israel stayed in the countryside until Israel granted them permission to make aliya, Nacoej's considerable aid programs in the cities would have been largely unnecessary, they say.

Nacoej rejects such arguments, saying that if not for their work, not only would Beta Israel migrants starve in Gondar and Addis while awaiting aliya, they also would be far less prepared for life in the Jewish state once they arrived there.

The Nacoej compounds provide about 15,000 Beta Israel with food, schooling for children and Jewish education for adults. At the compounds, the Beta Israel from the villages learn to stop speaking the language of Jesus Christ and begin speaking the language of Judaism. They take courses in Jewish prayer and learn to lay talit and tefillin. They pray in the compounds' ramshackle synagogues, the men donning kipot as they enter, the women sitting apart. They also are taught Hebrew and are told about what to expect when they arrive in Israel.

Some skeptics say the Jewish activities at the Nacoej compounds are a ploy to facilitate Falash Mura aliya by making the Falash Mura appear Jewish. The level of instruction at the compounds is superficial, they say, with children reciting the Aleph Bet and Hebrew phrases without knowing what they mean, holding prayerbooks upside down during synagogue services and being taught by instructors who themselves know little more than the students.

Others say Nacoej's efforts constitute the noble undertaking of bringing lost Jews back to the faith of their ancestors. They say the teaching at the compound may not be ideal, but it's good enough and it's the best possible given the circumstances. What's more, they say, it has turned the younger generation of Beta Israel into real Jews.

"Their kids know only Judaism. They fast the Fast of Esther. They have already returned to Judaism," said Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a member of the Chief Rabbinate's committee for absorption of Ethiopian Jews. Waldman also receives funding from Nacoej.

Nacoej spends about $1.5 million in Ethiopia every year-a massive sum by Ethiopian standards. Several months ago, Nacoej shut down the smaller of its two aid operations, in Addis Ababa, amid allegations that it was operating in the country illegally, avoiding paying local taxes and employing a representative who physically abused people. Nacoej has since begun the process of registering officially in Ethiopia, and despite corroboration of some of the allegations-such as reports that Nacoej's chief representative in Ethiopia, Andrew Goldman, beat up some of the agency's schoolteachers-Nacoej has resumed operating in Addis.

Nacoej spends the bulk of its money in Israel, where it funds programs for Ethiopian immigrants as well as groups that advocate for Ethiopian aliya, such as South Wing to Zion. South Wing's director, an Ethiopian immigrant named Avraham Neguise, has kept up the pressure on Israel to open its doors to Ethiopian olim, sometimes staging demonstrations opposite the Knesset with teary Ethiopian immigrants begging the government to bring loved ones left behind in Africa.

"We carried out the struggle wisely and responsibly," Neguise said in an interview during a visit to an absorption center near Jerusalem. "Nacoej served a very important historical role. Thousands of Jews would have been lost had we not struggled for them."

In America, big-city Jewish federations and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group-both major funders of Nacoej-have pressed the Israeli government to speed up Ethiopian aliya, with evident success.

"Without Nacoej, there wouldn't be any action," Ami Bergman, the JDC's representative in Israel and a veteran of Ethiopian affairs, said of Israel's attitude toward Ethiopian aliya.

Even some critics of Nacoej say the group's work is key to helping sustain a population in need of aid.

The Ethiopians live in urban shantytowns near the compounds, many of them in tiny tin shacks made of corrugated aluminum that rent for $12 a month-a rate most can barely afford. The rural population has become impoverished by the move to cities, trading a life on a farm for urban settings in which they are ill-equipped to sustain themselves financially or socially. Prostitutes prey on the young men, children become mendicants and older people sit idly.

Nacoej cites many of these factors in its fund-raising literature, and its officials often speak about how children are starving and dying of disease. Nacoej also claims that many Beta Israel were persecuted in their home villages, sometimes having their houses torched by local Christians.

This irks some in Ethiopia who say Nacoej distorts the truth and sometimes lies about the direness of the situation in Ethiopia to keep up pressure on Israel to accept Ethiopian immigrants and to prompt American donors to dig deeper into their pockets.

"The Jewish community was misinformed," said one an Israeli official in Ethiopia. "This is Ethiopia. No Falash Mura is starving more than the average Ethiopian, and they are not persecuted for being Jewish."

Tilahun Abebe, former director of Nacoej's school in Addis Ababa, said, Nacoej encouraged him to make up stories about persecution of Beta Israel by Ethiopian Christians.

"Nacoej told us to complain that our houses had been burned, that we've been beaten, but those things are all lies," he said. "We have said those things because they told us it will help us."

Some Beta Israel in the villages told the Post they are looked down upon by some of their neighbors and sometimes encouraged to leave so that others can take possession of their land, but none of them said they had ever heard of Beta Israel homes being burned.

Rick Hodes, the doctor with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who is responsible for the health of the Falash Mura population in Gondar and Addis, says Nacoej's dire pronouncements about the poor health of the Falash Mura simply are not true.

"The population is doing fine," Hodes said. "I think the population is receiving much better medical care than most Ethiopians."

The Falash Mura population's death rate in 2003 was 5 per 1,000, compared with 20 per 1,000 elsewhere in Ethiopia and 8 per 1,000 in the United States, according to Hodes.

Walking around the Beta Israel neighborhoods in Addis Ababa, it is clear that the Falash Mura in the cities are very poor. Their clothes are full of holes, they often don't have shoes, and they live five to a room in shacks far smaller than the average Israeli bedroom. But this is not much different from the way most Ethiopians live in the capital city. Addis Ababa's dusty streets are filled with beggars, the rock-strewn roadside is lined by one-room hovels shared by people and animals, and many adults are unemployed, able to afford little more than the tattered shirts on their backs.

By comparison, the Falash Mura get free food at the Nacoej compound, free medical care from the JDC and a level of education unavailable to most Ethiopians. Still, they generally have a much harder time making ends meet than when they lived in their villages.

"When we came to Gondar, we were hungry all the time. We could not find work," said one recently arrived Ethiopian immigrant to Israel after Hebrew ulpan at an absorption center in Mevasseret Zion. "But if you want a chance to go to Israel, you have to be in Addis or Gondar. Nobody goes to look for and bring the people who stayed in the villages."

Israeli officials have been reticent to accept the Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia as immigrants. When then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai decided in February 2003 to bring Ethiopia's remaining Falash Mura to Israel-a population then estimated at between 18,000 and 26,000-Yishai's successor, Avraham Poraz, dragged his feet on implementing the decision.

The problem was lingering doubts about how many Falash Mura remained in Ethiopia, and whether their aliya would be an interminable process with a cripplingly expensive price tag. Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to the government.

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

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 to come from Ethiopia. Within days of the ceremony, however, another 8,000 or so Falash Mura poured into Addis Ababa and Gondar to petition for aliya, and it quickly became clear that Ethiopian aliya was not yet over.

Poraz was worried that his administration would run into the same problem in 2003, and he sanctioned only a trickle of olim from Ethiopia, allowing them to immigrate at a rate of some 300 per month. The Americans made pledges of financial assistance to try to persuade Poraz to speed the aliya; Poraz was unmoved.

But Poraz has since been replaced, Sharon has made his decision to bring a maximum of 20,000 more olim under the Law of Entry, and officials at the Jewish Agency believe they have precluded the possibility that they will run into the same problem Netanyahu encountered.

This time, they say, they have an agreement in writing that Nacoej, which is as much an advocacy group as it is an aid organization, will leave Ethiopia forever three months after Israel begins implementing Sharon's decision to double the current rate of Ethiopian aliya to 600 souls per month. At that time-which could come as soon as October-the Jewish Agency will take over the Nacoej-run compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, and the JDC will administer the compounds' feeding programs.

The idea behind the administrative change is that Nacoej's exit will help guarantee the closure of the compounds once they are emptied of their clients, discouraging further Beta Israel from migrating from the countryside to the cities and petitioning for aliya. After 2007, according to this plan, any aliya candidates remaining in Ethiopia will have to prove that they are Jewish under the strict standards of the Law of Return, and their petitions will be considered on an individual basis.

"The Jewish Agency can be relied upon if it runs the compounds to close them down. Nacoej can't be relied upon, because they already failed," Rosenberg said, referring to Nacoej's decision in 1998 to keep its compounds open even after the "last planeload" of Falash Mura was flown to Israel. "In my opinion, the compounds should never have existed."

But with the Jerusalem Post's discovery of what appear to be tens of thousands of additional potential olim in the Achefar region of Ethiopia-and the possibility that there are hundreds of thousands of additional unknown Beta Israel elsewhere-many more Ethiopian olim may continue to knock on the Israelis' doors.

Indeed, one Interior Ministry official warned a visiting journalist from going to the rural villages looking for Beta Israel for fear that it could release the floodgates. "If you go to the villages and they see a faranji they will get excited," he said. "It will rouse everybody and people will come-even those who are ineligible" for aliya.

Privately, critics of the Interior Ministry also say they are worried that stretching out the aliya of the remaining 20,000 or so over the course of two and a half years-at a cost of some $30 million-simply will serve to spread the word that the doors to Israel are open, and thousands more Ethiopians will turn up at the gates to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa.

"It is way too long," JDC's Bergman said. "As soon as there was a decision [to bring the 20,000], we needed to act much more quickly."

The new interior minister, Ophir Pines-Paz, seems to understand that. He told the Post "We're now planning a work plan to speed the pace of aliya," and he said he is planning a trip to Ethiopia in the coming weeks.

For its part, Nacoej says it is making contingent plans to stay for the long haul should their agreement with the Jewish Agency fail.

"At this point, I don't know when we're going to leave," said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, Nacoej's executive director. "I think the Ministry of Interior is not moving that fast."

Last month, Nacoej petitioned Ethiopia's Justice Ministry for official status as a non-governmental organization and resumed some services at its previously closed compound in Addis.

Nacoej officials say they know of no more than 20,000 or so Beta Israel left in Ethiopia. When presented with details of the Jerusalem Post's discoveries in Achefar, Gordon had this to say: "Those are not people who will be eligible to go to Israel because they have no Jewish provenance. The whole world can say they are Beta Israel. They have nothing to do with us, or we with them. I don't know them. I don't know anybody who does know them. We are completely uninterested."

But a day later a Nacoej board member phoned the Jerusalem Post to explain away the Beta Israel discovered in Achefar, saying the Post had happened upon the only place in Ethiopia with an extraordinarily high concentration of Falash Mura still in their villages who may be eligible for aliya but have not yet petitioned the Israeli authorities.

Waldman, Nacoej's point man in the rabbinate, echoed those sentiments.

"You got to the place where there really is a concentration," Waldman said. "That exists only in the region of which you spoke. That's the reality. Those who don't want the Falash Mura to come mixed up all these populations."

But the Beta Israel in Achefar appear to be no different than those already at Nacoej's compounds in Addis and Gondar-they simply have not yet shown up there.

Eshetu Tarekegn, 70, says he's the oldest Beta Israel community member in his home village Debr Mandr. He sits at the entrance to his hut, his bare legs and feet splayed out in front of him. He holds a staff in one hand and rests the other on a rock, and he peers at the visiting faranji with opaque eyes, trying to answer what seem to him to be strange questions.

"Israel? Where the metallurgists and weavers go? Yes, I have heard of it," he says in response to a question. "Israel means a government unto itself."

Though he says he understands little about Israel, he wants to go there to improve his standard of living and his deteriorating health. But he has not heard about what he has to do to get there.

"Nobody has come to get me," Tarekegn says.

If the mass aliya from Gondar and Addis Ababa accelerates as expected, however, news of the migrations may reach even this remote village. Then, perhaps Tarekegn will one day find himself sitting outside his new home, on the hills around Jerusalem.

Sidebars accompanying this story:
But are they Jews?
The long journey to the Promised Land
Falash Mura aid group resumes some services

Related stories:
Ethiopian aliya cap threatened
JDC: Emergency funds to Falash Mura
US Jews: $100 M for Ethiopian aliya
Exclusive: Ethiopian gov't kicks out key US Jewish aid group
Jewish group accused of denying food