WhatChanie’sjour­neyto aliyah says about racism

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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - AN­SHEL PF­EF­FER

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 life­long 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 Falash- mura 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 nonJewish 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

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