Refuseniks of Addis Ababa  Jerusalem Report June 18, 2012

The African Jews That Israel Doesn’t Want

About ten years ago, Anagaw Haile, a farmer living in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, sold his land, goats and household  possessions.  Together with his wife,   seven  children and grandchildren,  he was leaving for Israel to join four brothers who had made aliya several years previous.  They travelled  for two days by bus  and arrived at the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa. After Haile filled out an aliya application form, he was told by embassy officials that he would have to wait.

Ten years later Haile is still waiting. Together with several thousand other Ethiopian Jews who have come to be known as the Falash Mura, he and his family were denied permission by the Israeli government to join their families in Israel. They have been in limbo and in misery  ever since. Haile, now  80 and suffering from poor health, continues to live in a ramshackle hut that he thought would be temporary housing.

Two of his children also live nearby. Five of them, however,  did manage to immigrate to Israel.  “We expected to join them  soon after they left,” laments Haile’s youngest son, Tesfahun. ” We didn’t realize that our family would be split in half  and maybe never see each other again.”

Tesfahun, 28,  is telling this story on a hot spring morning in Addis Ababa outside the large canvas tent that serves as a synagogue for the stranded Jews.  The synagogue is located on a small street about 200 meters away from the Israeli embassy. Inside about 250 congregants are chanting morning prayers in a mixture of Hebrew and Amharic.  The  men sit separately from the women who cover themselves with white cotton shawls.  They conclude with a gently moving version of Am Yisrael Chai,  a song that has been  a Zionist rallying cry for generations.  It soon becomes clear  that the Haile family is not the only one yearning to be reunited.

Standing at the  front of the assembly, a visiting journalist asks the crowd who among them  wants to go to Israel. One by one the congregants rise and exclaim in Amharic holachin – all of us.  They hold up   photos of family members who they haven’t seen in years.  “These are my grandchildren,” says one man showing several smiling twenty-year-olds  on the beach in Ashdod. A woman  presents a snapshot of  her brother’s  marriage ceremony in  Netanya. “These are my boys,” says another woman tearfully clutching a photo of two young men in IDF uniforms.

The cheerfulness conveyed by their family  photos  contrasts sharply with the hellish accounts of their own living conditions, descriptions  salted with heart-wrenching biblical references.  “When the people of Israel left Egypt they had everything they needed,” says one elderly woman . “But we don’t have enough to eat and no way to earn a living.” One man points out that his wife died in childbirth because they didn’t have enough money to pay for  a hospital.  “My body may be alive, but inside I am dead,” says another woman referring to what years of being  separated from her children has done to her.

Why have these people  been rejected by  the Israeli government? Why were some of their brothers, sisters, parents and children allowed to immigrate? And how is it possible that the Israeli government has turned such a cold shoulder to their plight?

The key to answering these questions goes back to a decision made by the government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  in  2003. Until then, varying criteria were used to determine who was eligible for aliya.    The new government directive granted aliya status only to  those who ‘are Jewish according to halacha (orthodox Jewish law)’ . According to halacha, one is only considered Jewish if one’s mother was Jewish. Consequently, after the Ministry of Interior began to implement the new decision in April of 2004, only   Ethiopians  who could show that their  mothers and grandmothers were listed as Jewish in  a survey  carried out in 1999 qualified for aliya status.

Haile, whose father and three grandparents were  Jewish  but whose  mother was not, did not meet the criteria. Immigration officials were not moved by the fact that he had sold all his property before the new rule was enforced and that he had no way back.  They also turned a deaf ear  to his desire to be reunited with his four brothers who had reached Israel prior to the change in government policy.

The  government decision,  because it contradicts the Law of Return, is considered by many to be  discriminatory. There was no similar edict for  Jews  wishing to immigrate from any other part of the world. The Law of Return, a founding principle of the Jewish State, guarantees citizenship to anyone with  a single Jewish grandparent .

“There is a stigma about us Ethiopian people. We may be poor but we are Jewish,”   says Endino Abay, 23,  whose  father and step-brothers immigrated to Israel ten years ago. Abay, a college student who regularly attends synagogue services was barred from making aliya because his mother, divorced from his Jewish father, is Christian.

Abay follows events in Israel closely and points out that “Russian people get treated differently.” He notes that an  estimated 300,000 Christians  from the former Soviet Union have been allowed to immigrate to Israel during the past 20 years on the basis of having at least one Jewish grandparent.

As heartless as the  governmental  policy  towards cases like those of Abay may seem,  Ministry of Interior bureaucrats have  actually implemented it in a far harsher way, often disqualifying  for aliya  Ethiopian Jews who have non-Jewish spouses even if they themselves are  maternally Jewish .

Gebeyhu Negede is one of them.   Negede, 53, an  electronics engineer with six children, is better off economically than most of the Falash Mura but when it comes to aliya he faces the same frustration . His mother and grandmother  were all Jewish but his wife is a convert.  “She’s become a real fanatic (Jew),” Negede tells the Report jokingly. But his humor has been lost on Ministry of Interior officials who repeatedly rejected  his  immigration application.

Negede describes growing up in a home where his mother lit Sabbath candles and where he was “forbidden to have coins in his jacket on Shabbat.” He points out that he didn’t join the big waves of Ethiopian aliya during the eighties and nineties because at the time  he was stationed overseas with the Ethiopian army where he rose to the rank of major.

Like many of the others, he is perplexed by the attitude of the Israeli embassy.  “They never give any reason. They just tell us to wait,” Negede tells the Report in an interview at his home.

“While organizations like the Red Cross try to reunite families,  the Israeli government keeps them apart,” he adds with a sense of bitter irony.

On the outdoor gatepost to the Negede home there is a sculpted magen david and on the living room wall a large Israeli flag is mounted.  As Negede’s wife places injera, the crepe-like Ethiopian bread on the dinner plates, his children say in unison the motze, the traditional Jewish blessing over bread.    To question the Jewishness of this family or its Zionist commitment seems totally absurd. “What kind of medical labs do they have  in Israel?” asks Betelhem, 24,  the oldest child and a hospital lab supervisor, who is eager to find out everything she can about Israel.

As Negede describes how he ran his first successful  business venture selling honey on street corners when he was 11 years old, it’s quite easy to picture this family thriving in Israel.  In Ethiopia Negede runs a  chain of tv repair shops and serves as a consultant to large electronics companies. With his skills and enterprising manner, one can readily imagine him fitting into Israel’s high-tech sector , maybe running an R&D department, perhaps founding a start-up.

But Negede’s attempts to bring his family to Israel have been stymied because, in addition to having a wife who is not of Jewish descent, he himself is classified that way in Ministry of Interior records.  “He’s  listed as a ‘code B'” explains Negede’s cousin Avraham Negusie, in an interview in Jerusalem. Negusie, who heads South Wing to Zion, an NGO that supports the Ethiopian Jewish community, pulls  a binder onto his desk that is a copy of the 1999  Ministry of Interior  survey.  According to the bureaucracy’s byzantine classification system the letter E  is a code assigned to  someone who is considered Jewish  through both parents, the letter C via their mother only and B from their father only.

Negede may have been incorrectly classified but his attempts to correct the situation have not gained a reply. “There is no system of appeal. The Ministry’s decision is final,” notes Negusie.

Negusie, 52, who bears a striking resemblance to Negede, and also wears a flat driver’s cap, came to Israel in 1984.  He  founded South Wing in 1991 to protest the government’s announced intention to curtail Ethiopian immigration altogether that year. “They said that all of the Jews were already here. Well, since then we have managed to bring another 55,000,” says Negusie with a smile.

But when it comes to advocating on behalf of the Falash Mura, Negusie has  run into a brick wall. He explains that the name itself is a misnomer.

“The Falash Mura was used historically to denote Ethiopian Jews who no longer kept Jewish practices,” explains Negusie. “But that’s not the criteria used by the Ministry of Interior.”

He points out that even on religious grounds  it doesn’t make sense to disallow the Falash Mura. “All Ethiopian Jews who make aliya are required to undergo year-long classes in Judaism and a conversion process supervised by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi anyways,” he says.

Negusie emphasizes that regardless of religious considerations,  a larger  humanitarian issue is at stake  – the basic human right for family reunification.  “About 85 percent of the Falash Mura have first-degree relatives in Israel.”

On this issue, Negusie disputes the contention that accepting those with first-degree relatives would inundate the country with new immigrants. At the request of The Report, Negusie checked the number of  Falash Mura individuals with family ties in Israel  whose aliya applications were rejected. In data being published here for the first time, he reveals that 459 families in Addis Ababa comprising about 1,500 individuals are involved.

He provides the following breakdown for the Addis Ababa community:  “Of the 459 individuals with first-degree relatives in Israel,  177 have either parents or grandparents in Israel, 53 have  children here, and 124 have brothers and sisters.” He points out that the immediate family members of these individuals who would immigrate with them brings the total number of potential immigrants to 1503.

The numbers for  the Falash Mura community in Gondar are about the same: 550 families with first-degree relatives, comprising about 1500 aliya hopefuls. Taken as a whole, the lives of about 3,000 are at stake.  “We are asking the government to let all of these people come to Israel and put an end to the matter once and for all,” concludes  Negusie, warning  that if the present situation persists the community will continue to grow and the problem will only get larger.

The current government however continues to see things differently. On November 10, 2010 a decision made by the Netanyahu government renewed the criteria established by the Sharon government in 2003. Those who are Jewish on their father’s side only are routinely disqualified for aliya.

When asked about that decision, Amos Arbel, the Ministry of Interior official in charge of immigration from Ethiopia, points out that his department receives numerous requests from families with relatives in Ethiopia on a daily basis. “We try to handle cases in as considerate and as humanitarian way as possible but we are bound by the rules of eligibility decided on by the government,” he says noting that his department has made exceptions involving about  150 cases during the past year and a half.

Today there are about 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. When members of the community are asked if it isn’t time to increase public pressure on the government on behalf of the Falash Mura, they  mention that the current government is dragging its feet even when it comes to allowing Ethiopian Jews approved for aliya.  “There are less than 3,000 on that list and they are only allowed to trickle into the country at a rate of about 200 a month,” observes Avraham Negusie.

Despite the current deadlock,  Negusie acknowledges that the Israeli government has acted positively on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry in the past. “In Operation Moses in 1984 about 8,000 were airlifted into Israel, in Operation Solomon in 1991 more than 14,000 were brought here in 48 hours.”

But this is little consolation for Anagaw Haile and others like him. “My father lives in a damp room without air and is getting sicker all the time,” says Mulu Haile, 40,  one of Anagaw Haile’s  sons, who speaks with a sense of desperation.  Mulu,  who lives in Rishon Le’Tzion  helps support his parents and other family members  in Ethiopia from his earnings as a supermarket worker.  Not an easy task  considering that he has four children of his own to look after.

Mulu’s children also long to be reunited with their grandparents. “Every Friday when my friends go to their grandparents for dinner, I feel tears swelling up in my throat,” says Esther, Mulu’s 18-year-old granddaughter.  ” Why, I ask , can’t I have dinner with my grandparents? Why can’t I have the kind of special food only my grandmother knows how to make? I haven’t seen her since I was ten years old.”

Bernard Dichek

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