No Jew Left Be­hind?

Why isn’t Is­rael wel­com­ing the last Ethiopi­ans?

Forward Magazine - - News - Con­tact Jane Eis­ner at eis­ner@for­ or on Twit­ter @Jane_Eis­ner

Civil un­rest is roil­ing Ethiopia. Hun­dreds of pro­test­ers have been killed in re­cent months by a gov­ern­ment crack­down that hu­man rights groups say has been ruth­less. The United Na­tions is de­mand­ing that its ob­servers be al­lowed in the coun­try, but Ethiopia’s rulers have re­fused.

And 9,000 men, women and chil­dren who say they are Jews are trapped in tran­sit camps in Gon­dar and Ad­dis Ababa be­cause the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment does not have the fund­ing, the bu­reau­cratic nim­ble­ness, the po­lit­i­cal will or the heart to an­swer their pleas and bring them to Is­rael.

The gov­ern­ment has its rea­sons — in fair­ness, I’ll get to them in a mo­ment — but first I have to ask: If civil un­rest were roil­ing Euro­pean ci­ties, would Is­rael hes­i­tate to an­swer the pleas of Jews in Paris or Brus­sels or Rome? Of course not. And Amer­i­can Jewry would not be silent.

We are all com­plicit in ig­nor­ing the plight of Jews who don’t look like us, or pray and eat like us, or prac­tice the kind of Ju­daism with which we iden­tify. To ex­pand the bound­aries of one’s tribe chal­lenges hu­man na­ture. But Ju­daism and, later, Zion­ism, have made us re­spon­si­ble for all Jews, and when it comes to peo­ple like De­moz De­boch and Geza­hegn Derebe, we are fail­ing.

I met the two Ethiopi­ans a few weeks ago, at the be­gin­ning of their tour of the United States to raise aware­ness of their sit­u­a­tion; the tour was or­ga­nized by David El­cott, a pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity’s Wag­ner School of Pub­lic Ser­vice, and funded by an ad hoc group of rab­bis and lead­ers.

In their early 20s, wear­ing finely knit­ted yarmulkes, De­boch and Derebe speak pass­able English and flu­ent He­brew, and with El­cott’s help they re­layed a com­mon story. It’s a story of be­ing left be­hind.

For 25 years, ever since Op­er­a­tion Solomon covertly air­lifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Is­rael dur­ing a pre­vi­ous round of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, waves of these an­cient Jews have wanted to leave Africa’s sec­ond most pop­u­lous coun­try. They flocked from vil­lages to ci­ties and got stuck in com­pounds that turned into tran­sit camps. Over those years, Jewish aid or­ga­ni­za­tions and non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions tried to help the Ethiopi­ans while ad­vo­cat­ing for their right to go to Is­rael. And tens of thou­sands of Africans have gone. But more want to go. And so the “fi­nal” im­mi­gra­tion is not fi­nal at all.

As a re­sult, Ethiopi­ans like De­boch and Derebe are torn from their fam­i­lies — both men have sib­lings, cousins, aunts and un­cles in Is­rael. “We know we are the chil­dren of Abra­ham, Isaac and Ja­cob,” Derebe told me. “We want to be at one with all the Jews of the world. We don’t un­der­stand why peo­ple would say ‘You’re not good enough Jews.’”

This is what of­fends Avra­ham Neguise, an Ethiopian-born mem­ber of the Knes­set and cham­pion of the Jews left be­hind. Af­ter the Ne­tanyahu gov­ern­ment de­cided last Novem­ber to bring the re­main­ing 9,146 Jews in Ethiopia to Is­rael, Neguise and an­other law­maker in the rul­ing Likud coali­tion told Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu that they would with­hold their votes un­til the repa­tri­a­tion was com­plete.

Since Ne­tanyahu had only a one-vote ma­jor­ity in the Knes­set, the ploy worked — un­til he broad­ened his coali­tion by mak­ing a deal with Avig­dor Lieber­man, and sud­denly Neguise lost his lever­age. Sud­denly there was no money in the bud­get for the Ethiopi­ans. Sud­denly there were ques­tions raised about their au­then­tic­ity as Jews.

“The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment is deny­ing their ba­sic right to be united with their fam­i­lies,”

Neguise told me in a phone in­ter­view from Is­rael. “You don’t see this with any other Jewish com­mu­nity.”

It’s true. While the Jewish lin­eage and prac­tices of Ethiopian Jews are ques­tioned, Jews from the for­mer Soviet Union with sim­i­larly un­cer­tain back­grounds were wel­comed. Natan Sha­ran­sky, a hero from the Soviet ex­o­dus and now head of the Jewish Agency for Is­rael, has cham­pi­oned the cause of crypto-Jews in Spain, whose an­ces­tors were forced to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity five cen­turies ago.

And the black guys wear­ing prayer shawls and read­ing To­rah aren’t good enough?

To at­tribute this to racism is un­com­fort­able but un­avoid­able. “We ab­so­lutely be­lieve we have an equal place in Is­rael. We are try­ing to un­der­stand why Is­raelis would in­vite oth­ers and not us,” De­boch said care­fully. “This re­ally dis­turbs us. The Law of Re­turn al­lows oth­ers with­out ask­ing, but we are al­ways chal­lenged.”

But the racism ex­pla­na­tion is also in­com­plete. There are more than 100,000 Ethiopi­ans now in Is­rael, and while they face dis­crim­i­na­tion, they also are in­creas­ingly in­te­grated and ac­cepted. Many of those Africans were poor and un­e­d­u­cated; the gov­ern­ment has a right to assess whether it can ac­com­mo­date even more. And Ne­tanyahu has said he is com­mit­ted to ac­cept­ing all 9,000 — he just won’t say when.

As much as my heart goes out to De­boch and Derebe, their dis­tinc­tive Jewish­ness does present a chal­lenge. They bust the stereo­types — “We have the blood of Jews but not the color of Jews,” Derebe said — and hold some very dif­fer­ent re­li­gious views. They fer­vently be­lieve, for in­stance, in re­build­ing a Third Tem­ple, a mes­sianic wish I view as danger­ous (even if some Is­raeli Jews be­lieve the same thing).

But none of that should mat­ter, be­cause, in the end, they are Jews who wish to be in Is­rael and we should sup­port them.

In our con­ver­sa­tion, Neguise ac­cused the Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity of cham­pi­oning Ethiopian Jews years ago but ig­nor­ing the re­main­ing ones now. “They aban­doned this com­mu­nity,” he said, “with­out com­plet­ing the task.”

“We are the chil­dren of Abra­ham, Isaac and Ja­cob. We don’t un­der­stand why peo­ple would say ‘You’re not good enough Jews.’”

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