What Chanie’s journey to aliyah says about racism

By Anshel Pfeffer, May 2, 2008

Our correspondent, recently back from Ethiopia, sees Israel’s treatment of the Falashmura as a symptom of the mess that is aliyah

Chanie Tewabe Baruk left Ethiopia three weeks ago for a Jewish Agency absorption centre in the Galilee. As a Falashmura, the descendant of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity but kept some kind of connection with their Jewish relatives, the life-long Christian will receive full Israeli citizenship after he undergoes a ten-month conversion procedure.

Married three times, the 58-year-old has 12 children and has been warned by the Interior Ministry that his citizenship will not allow his children too to emigrate to Israel; he has even signed an affidavit to this effect. But Baruk admits freely that, once he settles down in Israel, he will try to "reunite" his family. After all, a father needs his children with him, supporting him in his old age.

Not everyone is happy to welcome this new immigrant to the Land of Israel. The current controversy over whether to end the Ethiopian immigration goes to the heart of the Law of Return and the "Who is a Jew?" debate.

Those calling for reform point to cases such as Baruk's to emphasise how, in their opinion, the immigration process to Israel has been abused in recent years. When taken at face value, the decision of the Israeli government to close down the Jewish Agency's operations in Ethiopia at the end of June was merely a bureaucratic procedure, the culmination of the January 2005 cabinet decision to end the Falashmura aliyah when the 17,000 originally identified in a 1999 survey had made aliyah. Arrayed against this decision is a wide coalition including rabbis, American Jewish organisations, some of the leading legal experts in the Jewish world and some, but not all, of the movements representing Ethiopian Jewry in Israel. They ask why Ethiopia is the only country facing an aliyah quota from Israel; and why the only Jews being disbarred from entering the Jewish state happen to be black-skinned.

These are serious accusations. So have the Israeli authorities dealt with the Ethiopian immigration in a racist manner? No-one in Israel denies that many mistakes were made, and are still happening, in the absorption of 73,000 Ethiopian immigrants. But that has been true of every wave of immigration to reach the country's shores, from the Holocaust survivors who flocked to the state from the very first day of its existence to the million immigrants arriving in the 1990s after the Iron Curtain collapsed and freed up emigration from the Soviet Union.

In the mid 1980s, the New York Times columnist William Safire wrote of the first wave of aliyah from Ethiopia that, "for the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought into a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens". Actually, countries like the United States and Canada do give citizenship to Ethiopians and other Africans - "but these are only handpicked and skilled university graduates," says a senior Jewish Agency official. "We [Israel] take in illiterate villagers who have to be taught how to go to the toilet and open a fridge."

But neither is the government's claim that it is simply carrying out a legal procedure entirely innocent.

Whether the government stands by its current policy or, as happened in the past, caves in to the combined pressure and continues bringing 300 each month indefinitely, is not only a legal or humanitarian question. It is a sign of the woeful inadequacy of Israel's immigration and citizenship policy. The Law of Return is still, in the eyes of many Israelis and Jews, a cornerstone of the Zionist ideal. Yet it is proving incapable of dealing with the 21st century's global tide of emigration and the demographic changes in the Jewish people.

Over the years, Israeli policy towards bringing in Ethiopian Jewry in general and towards the Falashmura in particular has fluctuated widely. And rarely, if ever, has that policy been the result of long-term planning and deliberation. More often, decisions were taken after political pressure was brought to bear by coalition members, religious interests and influential diaspora leaders. The world looked on impressed when Israel airlifted 14,310 Ethiopian Jews in 35 hours in May 1991, but this was hardly the result of long-term planning and policy. In fact, the Jewish Agency accused the American Association for Ethiopian Jews of encouraging them to converge on Addis in early 1991, thereby creating a perceived humanitarian crisis and forcing Israel to act.

Israel's leaders hoped at least that the Herculean effort of Operation Solomon would bring the Ethiopian saga to its logical end, with all the Falasha Jews safely in Israel. But different groups with varying claims of connection to the Jewish people were left behind and the successive governments have since only been picking up the pieces.

So Israeli policy is inconsistent; what else is new? Actually, immigration legislation is the one horse that Israel has ridden remarkably steadily for close to six decades. The Law of Return, granting full citizenship rights to all Jews emigrating to the state, was voted upon in 1950 and since then the only major change made to it, in 1970, was the inclusion of the partners, children and grandchildren of Jews. Legal and political battles left the definition of "who is a Jew" blurred under the basic declaration that a Jew is anyone who was "born to a Jewish mother, converted to Judaism and not a member of another religion".

It took the country a quarter of a century to get around to the question of what to do about the Beita Yisrael of Ethiopia. In the end, it was a ruling by then Chief Rabbi Ovadya Yossef, based on rather unreliable historical documents linking the Falashas to the lost tribe of Dan, that paved the way for their inclusion as bona fide citizens. Another ruling by one of Yossef's successors, current Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, was supposed to do the same thing for the Falashmura, but here things were not so simple. A Supreme Court ruling from 1960 set the precedent that Jews who converted to another religion lost their eligibility to citizenship. Amar accepted the claims that their conversion was coerced and they had remained connected to Judaism. They were "total Jews", according to rabbis; but still, to put all doubts out of the way, they would have to undergo a full conversion upon arriving in Israel.

But the Falashmura were unlike their cousins of the Beita Yisrael. There was no agreement as to how many of them exactly there were, a question exacerbated by the loose family structures in Ethiopian society and their distinct style of Christianity that incorporated Jewish symbols and mythology and saw itself as descended from King Solomon. When former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu debated the Falashmura's fate, Ethiopia's ambassador to Israel said to him: "I want to be one of the first million Falashmura you bring to Israel."

The deep-rooted suspicion that most of the Falashmura have no real connection with Judaism, and are basically African citizens seeking a better life in a westernised country, is at the base of the finally to bring their aliyah to an end.

Today, thousands of Falashmura, now full Israeli citizens, are clamouring to allow their relatives in. Twelve-thousand Falashmura have already uprooted themselves from their villages and are waiting aimlessly in the northern city of Gondar for some kind of answer.

We are Jews, they say; our children serve in the army and have shed their blood for the country. How can you keep us separated from our parents, sons and daughters?

The strongest justification for the Falashmura's claims of racism are the more than 300,000 non-Jewish Russians who have received Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Why, they ask, does Israel welcome white Christians, under no obligation to go through giyur (conversion), and refuse entry to black Falashmura, who are prepared to do anything to prove they are part of the Jewish people? But the immigrants coming from the former Soviet Union have the law on their side, and the documents to prove they are eligible as first-degree relations to Jews.

And the Falashmura are just the first group in the queue. Standing behind them are the Bnei Menashe, of northern India, and other tribes from as far afield as Nigeria and Peru, claiming their descent from the lost ten tribes. Next in line are the descendants of the Marranos, the Jews forced to convert 500 years ago by the Spanish Inquisition; potentially hundreds of millions living in Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the United States, whose grandmothers lit candles on Saturdays and went to mass.

In the past, many Israelis might have seen such developments as encouraging; a chance to overcome the "demographic time-bomb" of the Palestinian birth-rate. Yet apart from some right-wing religious groups, most Israelis, on both sides of the political divide, realise today that the only viable solution is a territorial one.

Many also feel today that past policies of bringing in more olim at any cost has caused a severe social problem with a sub-strata of badly integrated and disgruntled communities.

Add to that the fact that Israel has no clear policy on dealing with over quarter of a million foreign workers, many of them residing with no legal permits in South Tel Aviv, their numbers swelling daily with more African refugees stealing through the Sinai border.

Over the last few months, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency have been rethinking the concept of aliyah, recognising the fact that almost all the official diaspora is now an affluent, self-confident community, well established throughout the Western world, and in no hurry to move to Zion.

A rethink of the complex relationship between the Jews of Israel and the world is long overdue. Both sides have much to lose from the erosion of ties and identification already taking place in widening swathes of the younger generation. But in order for such a realignment to be effective, it must be coupled with a comprehensive review of citizenship legislation.

Besides one rather populist speech by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who raised a half-baked idea of "temporary citizenship", nothing is happening on this front. Three years ago, former Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz set up such a commission, headed by Professor Amnon Rubinstein, but the commission was disbanded after another political upheaval. Rubinstein is now on a sabbatical in Britain.

Israel does not have to relinquish the basic foundation of its role as the homeland for every Jew in order to bring the Law of Return up to date.

Perhaps it is too much to expect from a country without a constitution and fixed borders, but at least some effort is being made to reach a lasting solution with Syria and the Palestinians, and the Knesset Law Committee is working on drafts of a constitution.

The Israeli government has manoeuvred itself in to a position that whatever decision it finally takes on the Falashmura will be necessarily a bad one.

At least if it stands by its current decision to extricate itself for now from the Ethiopian quagmire, this could offer the necessary interval in which to formulate a new immigration policy. After 60 years, this is definitely one issue on which Israel urgently needs to grow up.

Anshel Pfeffer, a JC Israel correspondent, travelled to Ethiopia for Ha'aretz

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 19 2008