Inside story

The last of the Falash Mura?

On Wednesday, a final flight will ostensibly complete the aliya of 7,500 members of a Jewish community that had converted to Christianity. Is this really the end of a hugely controversial mass immigration process? Should it be? The Times of Israel reports from Ethiopia

Preparing for life in Israel: An ordinary day at the Jewish Agency's synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/ToI)
Preparing for life in Israel: An ordinary day at the Jewish Agency's synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/ToI)

GONDAR, Ethiopia – The winter night was crisp and still. It was 5 a.m. The stars, glittering like slices of diamond in the jet-black sky, had not yet given way to the peeping sun. Silhouettes wrapped in gabis, white blanket-like scarves, walked slowly along the side of the road.

“They’re going to church,” Asher Seyum, head of the Jewish Agency in Ethiopia, said about the solitary figures, as he raced to bid farewell to a group of Falash Mura departing for Israel. (Falash Mura is a colloquial, albeit pejorative, term from Ge’ez describing Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries largely due to persecution and economic strife but who maintained a distinct communal identity.)

It was December 2012, on a bumpy dirt road outside the gates of the Jewish Agency facility here. Several hundred figures had gathered to say goodbye to the individuals making aliya, ascending to Israel. Their journey would be via bus to Addis Ababa and then by plane (a first for most of them). Men scrambled atop the two buses to tie down personal belongings — shopping bags and mesobs, traditional woven-basket tables.

“I can’t believe I’m making aliya,” said Chakura, a shy teenage girl beaming with excitement. “I’ve waited such a long time for this!” she said as she dashed onto the bus.

Scenes like this have been a routine occurrence in Gondar over the past year, as the Jewish Agency completed Israel’s mass immigration effort in Ethiopia before closing up shop here, allegedly for good. The project, Operation Dove’s Wings, airlifted the last of the eligible Falash Mura — 7,846 individuals. On Wednesday, August 28, the last flight will land at Ben Gurion Airport.

Although the Falash Mura are not entitled to make aliya under the Law of Return — a benefit reserved for individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent (based on the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws that categorized people as Jewish if they were one-quarter Jewish) — special government decisions have granted them permission to come to Israel pending authorization from the Interior Ministry.

The 20-plus years of Falash Mura immigration have been beset by complications and heated emotions, replete with disputes over identity and rights. The Falash Mura community comprises villages of extremely tight-knit, interconnected families — translating into gray areas where defining who was entitled to move to Israel was complex. Within one family, some members were allowed to make aliya while others were not. Parts of families were left behind.

As the Jewish Agency wraps up the operation, that leaves questions – about the fate of those left behind, and whether the government’s determinations on who was eligible to make aliya were valid.

Some in Gondar say they were given a false sense of hope, stemming from a confusing selection process amid shifting government criteria, only to find out, years later, that they weren’t eligible for aliya. Critics of the government claim Israel hasn’t acted humanely, or “Jewishly,” enough in its treatment of the Falash Mura.

But others counter that the government went too far and opened a Pandora’s box of intractable issues by bringing any of the Falash Mura to Israel — particularly when members of the Beta Israel, the original Ethiopian Jewish communities that lived in the north of the country, suffered for many years to keep their Jewish faith alive.

Last December outside the Jewish Agency compound, a gaping rift — a physical gap — yawned between two groups of people, visually narrating their impending separation: Those were the ones about to ride their lucky ticket to the Promised Land; these were the ones fated to remain in Ethiopia.

Members of the latter group were shadows in the buses’ strips of light. They stood silently as they watched their relatives and neighbors board. Then the buses were gone, leaving only a trail of dust behind them.

The reunion

Maggie Meganenke Mengisto, an 18-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli from Beit Shemesh with pin-straightened hair and piercing eyes, was sitting in her cousin Damaka Mengisto’s Gondar home — a dark, six-by-10-foot shack topped with a tin roof — for the very first time.

Damaka’s three daughters dashed in and out of the room like star-struck fans of front of their visiting relatives, who included Buyota Mengisto and Zahava Mero — both 16 and from Jaffa. The trio was part of a Jewish Agency-sponsored trip, Samai, in which 15 Israeli-Ethiopian teens visited their ancestral homeland last winter.

The teens slowly divulged details about their family. “I haven’t seen Damaka in eight years,” Buyota, a sweet-tempered, shy boy, said with a solemn face. Buyota and Damaka are half-brothers; they share a father but have different mothers.

Maggie lifted Damaka’s newborn baby girl and nuzzled her into her chest. Over the doorway of his cramped, two-room home hung a blue and white hat adorned by a Jewish star — the dangling symbol of what had once seemed possible: his dream of joining his relatives in Israel.

Damaka’s story is an inconclusive one: He’s waited for 12 years for his turn to make aliya. But he is one of more than 12,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia who hasn’t been granted permission to move to Israel.

The first 4,000 Falash Mura who immigrated did so in the wake of Operations Moses (1984) and Solomon (1991), in which the IDF covertly airlifted some 22,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, saving them, with the CIA”s help, from famine and civil war. That first group of 4,000 Falash Mura claimed they had been left behind during those two operations. They immigrated, by and large, under the rubric of humanitarian need or family reunification laws.

But in the years after Operation Solomon in 1991, the number of Falash Mura who migrated to Addis Ababa and Gondar with the hopes of coming to Israel ballooned. Jewish humanitarian groups and activists lobbied Israel to allow more in, citing the group’s historic connection to Judaism. After 1998, cases were reviewed, piecemeal, until an additional several thousand Falash Mura again immigrated, prompting the government to seek a more conclusive approach.

Major backing for the community’s right to aliya came from the Shas party, which initiated a plan to rescue the Falash Mura. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled in 2002 that the Falash Mura had converted to Christianity because of fear and persecution, and another Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, concluded a few years later that the Falash Mura were, beyond a doubt, Jewish.

Under mounting pressure, Israel made two landmark cabinet rulings in 2003 and 2010, tasking the Jewish Agency with bringing thousands of Falash Mura. The floodgates of mass Falash Mura immigration burst open, but with one main caveat: To be eligible, an individual had to have Jewish matrilineal descent, even it was from several generations back. The government based the criterion, first, on the Jewish legal concept that Judaism is passed down through the mother and, second, on the concept of Zera Israel, or the “seeds of Israel,” i.e., those who may not be Jewish but embody a relationship to the faith.

Back in Gondar, when the teens were asked why Damaka couldn’t come to Israel, they looked confused. The question had struck a sensitive nerve. According to Israel’s criteria, if Damaka’s mother’s side of the family had Jewish roots, or if his wife’s mother’s family had Jewish roots, he should be eligible to make aliya.

Maggie and Zahava looked down at the ground. Buyota claimed Damaka’s mother was Jewish but that she had died, which made it hard to check her background, and that Damaka’s wife — whose forehead and neck were marked with a light-blue tattoo of a cross, which is common for Coptic Christians in Ethiopia — had Jewish roots, but only from her father’s side of the family.

“I cry every day,” said Damaka, who wears a kippa and works as a cook at the Jewish Agency-run synagogue around the corner. Every day he watches people get ready to leave for Israel, Buyota said, translating for Damaka, who spoke in Amharic.

‘I don’t even know why all these checks matter. We all had to convert when we moved to Israel anyway’

“I pray all the time. I keep asking them [the Jewish Agency] why I can’t come… I don’t understand why others get to go but I don’t,” said Damaka as he looked at his young relatives. He said he missed his family and that he’d become ill over it.

“I don’t even know why all these checks matter,” Zahava muttered under breath. “We all had to convert when we moved to Israel anyway.”

Upon reaching Israel, Falash Mura indeed go through a process of conversion to Orthodox Judaism. The teens, themselves from Falash Mura origins, had moved to Israel from Gondar over the course of the last 10 years and had undergone a conversion process as well.

Damaka abruptly turned to Maggie and whispered something in her ear. A tense silence filled the room. Maggie sat still. Tiny tears welled up in her eyes, then she composed herself and explained that Damaka had told her she has a younger half-brother, here in Gondar.

Her father never spoke about him, she said. She’d never met him.

One of the neighbors ran to fetch him. Moments later, Maggie and her half-brother stood shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time in their lives. The siblings awkwardly embraced and chatted like strangers. The teens were then told they had to get on their way. They kissed Damaka and his wife and kids and headed down the road, their heads hanging low as they walked.

They hadn’t expected, they said, to be able to see Damaka or his home. Maggie still looked shaken, her eyes two hollow circles.

The teens, who seemed so Israeli that morning with their blingy cellphones and Hebrew slang, were, in an instant, transported back to their childhoods, their lives once again intertwined with their Ethiopian family members who never left.

The lists

As the Jewish Agency finishes bringing over the last eligible Falash Mura – definitively billed as Israel’s “last large mass immigration effort in Ethiopia,” according to Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman — cases like Damaka’s are a painful flashpoint for the community, many of whom, like the teens, are still connected to Ethiopia and have relatives there.

Sabin Hadad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population and Migration Authority, the division responsible for approving which Falash Mura are eligible to move to Israel, agreed with the Prime Minister’s Office that the issue is “long closed.”

Already in 1998-1999, the ministry sent envoys to Ethiopia to put together a census list of Falash Mura who had Jewish matrilineal lineage and who would possibly be eligible to make aliya, Hadad said in a telephone interview.

She gave an example of how the narrowly defined selection process works: A Christian Ethiopian woman who marries a Falash Mura man who has Jewish roots from his mother’s side is able to make aliya with her husband. However, if that woman, who’s Christian, was previously married to a Christian man, then her former husband and the kids from their marriage are not allowed to immigrate to Israel with her.

The cabinet’s first decision in 2003 to bring over several thousand Falash Mura was partially a result of the field research the Interior Ministry conducted in 1998-1999. It was while they waited for their turn to immigrate that the Falash Mura infamously languished in grueling conditions in overcrowded transit camps run by NACOEJ, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, and other Jewish humanitarian groups.

The government had hoped to expedite and complete the process by 2007, by increasing the rate of aliya from 300 to 600 people per month, but that was difficult to do because the endeavor came with a hefty price tag. In the wake of the 2003 cabinet decision, the Finance Ministry estimated that it cost $100,000 to bring over and absorb each Ethiopian immigrant. Today, costs also include housing, both at the absorption center for nearly a year and then assistance with purchasing a home, as well as counseling services, educational courses, and a conversion process.

When the government ceremoniously declared the end of mass Ethiopian immigration by 2008, a public outcry ensued. Many families in Ethiopia claimed they had been excluded from the application process. Some said they hadn’t heard about it, out in their small, remote villages, while others maintained they were mistakenly left off the government’s lists.

The state then decided it would allow in more Falash Mura so long as they met additional stipulations: that they had lived in Gondar for about a year and that they were listed on the Interior Ministry’s 1999 census list of potentials.

‘We had many cases where a mother or father brought kids with them who weren’t even part of their family’

But while that was going on, Hadad explained, problems of a different nature were popping up, including instances of Falash Mura immigrating to Israel who weren’t actually eligible to do so. “We had many cases where a mother or father brought kids with them who weren’t even part of their family,” she said. “We had all types of problematic situations like this, and we needed to be cautious.”

Mounting pressure from US and other overseas Jewish groups once again turned the Falash Mura into a central issue for politicians, providing the impetus for the government to reopen and reassess the issue of Falash Mura immigration, culminating in its final 2010 cabinet decision to initiate one last major aliya effort.

Unfinished business

Asher Seyum, who heads the Jewish Agency’s operations in Ethiopia, called the government’s system for ascertaining a Falash Mura’s eligibility for aliya “imperfect” at best in a recent interview.

A vivacious man, Seyum was 13 when he walked from Ethiopia to Sudan and lived in a refugee camp for a year before being brought to Israel as part of Operation Moses. He bought his first pair of shoes for that trip.

Sipping a locally brewed Dashen beer in Gondar, Seyum said that looking back wasn’t helpful, but that serious decisions still lie ahead for Israel.

“Where were these people [the ones who are eligible to come to Israel] registered — in Gondar? In the villages? Who helped the ministry make those original lists?” he asked, rhetorically. He pointed out that the government’s selection process was confusing and somewhat opaque.

Seyum called his post in Ethiopia a “spiritual mission.” He described the humanitarian work the agency provided under his stewardship: In addition to running a school, synagogue, and community center in Gondar, it provided hot meals for pregnant and nursing women and children up to age 6, and ran sustenance programs through which it distributed thousands of dollars’ worth of grains to families slated to come to Israel.

Yet he also painted a complex picture of the Falash Mura staying in Ethiopia — of families ripped apart and a community riddled with pain.

Few people know the personal stories and heartaches associated with the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia better than Seyum. “It’s an awful injustice,” he said. “There are people I’ve met here who have eight or nine brothers in Israel — but they are stuck here.”

According to the Jewish Agency, families in this type of situation have several avenues of recourse. Individuals can apply for residency via family reunification laws, which many have done. They can also appeal citing humanitarian reasons.

The devastating aspect of the process, Seyum said, was the several-year period of limbo that some Falash Mura families were put through by Israel — which is why a clearcut answer from the ministry was so sought-after by the families, even if it wasn’t the answer they’d hoped for.

Despite its best intentions, the government’s shifting rules about Falash Mura immigration caused confusion among the community, he explained. “It’s not what Israel did — it’s what Israel didn’t do.”

‘Sure, Israel can bring over 15,000 Falash Mura, but then another 15,000 will come to Gondar’

“I’m afraid that this issue is far from over. The government is fooling itself if it thinks it is,” he said. Intense pressure from international Jewish groups could likely convince the government to reopen the process, just as it did in the past, he predicted.

“Sure, Israel can bring over 15,000 Falash Mura, but then another 15,000 will come to Gondar,” he warned. “Someone needs to take responsibility for this issue and do it right… Israel should work together with the Ethiopian government on this, and use its local knowledge, and settle the issue of Falash Mura immigration once and for all.”

The final list

From his office in downtown Jerusalem, Amos Arbel, a stern man with a warm smile who heads the Interior Ministry’s Population and Migration Authority, emphatically rejects the idea that there have been shades of gray when it comes to Falash Mura immigration.

Arbel explained that the 2010 cabinet decision delineated three criteria for Falash Mura making aliya: that an individual have Jewish lineage from his mother’s side; that the individual apply from Ethiopia; and that his family in Israel also submit a request.

Under his watch, the ministry in 2010 again sent emissaries to Gondar to compile a new list of potentials. The ministry checked over 10,000 names and created a new register of 7,846 people, the “last of the Falash Mura” being brought to Israel by Wednesday.

He said that the ministry had since made corrections and gave approval to an additional hundred people and that it now deals with individual Falash Mura on a case-by-case basis only. Unique situations brought forward — ones that include child orphans or other extenuating circumstances — are reexamined and then approved, often by him personally.

When asked about the approximately 12,000 members of the Falash Mura community who weren’t given permission to come to Israel, Arbel contended that large numbers of families had congregated in Gondar “with the hope that their luck would change,” but said that the ministry, for its part, had long ago completed its task.

“No one was prevented from submitting an application [to the ministry], and everyone has been given an answer about their status,” he said. “The process was completely transparent, and everything was accounted for. It’s the most inclusive list to date.”

Arbel pointed out that the ministry worked hand in hand with community leaders in Ethiopia and Israel, including rabbis and kesim (Ethiopian-Jewish high priests) to decide who was eligible. “We asked for everyone’s input so we could close this issue once and for all,” he said, resolutely.

“I hope Israel stands behind its decisions — unless of course the government decides to bring half of Ethiopia here,” he said.

To be fair, the system of tracing the Falash Mura’s heritage extends beyond the recent efforts of the Interior Ministry; it’s an inherited issue.

For example, written public records in Ethiopia are shoddy. As Arbel pointed out, the ministry, in many cases, had to rely on local, folkloric knowledge in order to evaluate the credibility of someone’s Jewish heritage. In other words, the ministry’s system of categorizing and tracking family histories was vulnerable by definition, insomuch as people’s memories are prone to error or capriciousness.

A Jerusalem-based Ethiopian-Israeli activist interviewed for this article, who preferred not to give her name because of the sensitive nature of the topic within her community, explained that the process of tracing the Falash Mura’s Jewish lineage has always been shrouded in secrecy.

Israel inherited a lot of its institutional background about the Falash Mura from NACOEJ, the Jewish organization that managed the camps in Gondar that the Jewish Agency ran. A lot of the information about the community was anecdotal, she added, making it vulnerable to arbitrariness or manipulation.

The activist also claimed that the locals who helped the ministry perform the eligibility checks “did a few favors here and there” for friends, and were occasionally bribed to include names on the list. She said that, by the same token, some families were accidentally left off without explanation.

Another phenomenon was that certain geographic areas were seemingly excluded from the ministry’s selection process, such as the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, located along the Eritrean border. Small holes like these, she said, give her community the impression that the matter of Falash Mura immigration has not been sealed for good, and that discrepancies still exist.

Jewish according to whom?

Rabbi Menachem Waldman, director of the Shvut Am Institute, which works on youth conversions, has become the Chief Rabbinate’s emissary on Falash Mura immigration. An outspoken proponent of bringing the Falash Mura community to Israel, Waldman claimed the government has created a double standard.

“If a Falash Mura man is directly Jewish from his father, meaning his father was Jewish from both sides of his family, then that man still can’t immigrate [assuming his mother doesn’t have Jewish roots] — whereas people who make aliya under the Law of Return might not have even one Jewish parent, but will still be allowed to come,” he said in a telephone interview.

‘We act as if we are doing them a favor by letting them come, but some of them have direct Jewish lineage’

“It’s a paradox,” he said. “The Falash Mura immigrate as non-Jews, and we act as if we are doing them a favor by letting them come, but some of them have direct Jewish lineage… This is wrong.”

Noting that the government’s criteria had changed over the years, he said the added stipulations had denied some Falash Mura what was once their right to immigrate.

“Some families waited years before finally being rejected,” Waldman said. “It’s really a travesty, and I believe that Israel should take a more Jewish, more humanitarian, approach to the process.”

Moreover, Waldman said, identity is passed down patrilineally in Ethiopia, further complicating Israel’s standard for evaluating a Falash Mura’s heritage. “Even the Beta Israel [Ethiopian Jews] accorded Jewish identity through the father,” he pointed out.

Waldman quoted a tenet of the Halacha, or Jewish Law, that states that those who return to Judaism should be accepted just as they are and not be questioned. Hence, a more inclusive term that Waldman and others use to describe the Falash Mura is Shearith Yehudei Ethiopia (“the rest of the Ethiopian Jewry”).

Advocates of further Falash Mura mass immigration have argued that they often kept to their own communities in Ethiopia, keeping a semblance of Jewish identity, and that most chose to marry from within those communities.

“We should remember that they [Falash Mura] left Judaism under hardship and discrimination in Ethiopia, and that they were lost,” Waldman said. “But they are Jews in every sense, and it is upon us to accept them as one of us. They are Zera Yisrael (“seeds of Israel”),” he said, arguing a person who is Jewish never really leaves Judaism.

“Credit is due to NACOEJ for not giving up on them and paving their way to Israel and to Judaism over these past 23 years,” he said.

Indeed, today, after 20 years of immigration, more than 50,000 Falash Mura immigrants and their descendants live in Israel — over 50 percent of Ethiopian Israelis.

Beta Israel

To some members of the Beta Israel community whose families suffered for years in the name of Judaism, the real travesty Israel committed was succumbing to pressure from Jewish groups and unlocking its gates to any of the Falash Mura in the first place.

Danny Adeno Abebe, a Yedioth Ahronoth reporter who came to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984, spoke candidly about the issue in a recent interview in Jerusalem.

“I don’t think the Falash Mura are Jewish,” Abebe said, deadpan.

“Look, I think every person in Ethiopia would be happy to say they’re Jewish and get out of there. I think the Jewish world made a tragic mistake — and we, the members of the original Ethiopian Jewish community, are paying the price,” he said.

Abebe described his own family’s plight and the dangers they faced, both in terms of security and economic standing, in the name of Judaism. Part of the problem, he said, is that the Falash Mura were given false hope that they’d be able to come to Israel over the years. Numerous families who thought they had a chance to immigrate to Israel left their villages for Gondar and Addis Ababa, only to be rejected.

“First, the country brought people [to Israel] without any connection to Judaism,” he recalled. “In Ethiopia, in the process, it ripped them from their villages — these are people who had homes and cows and goats and grew wheat — and brought them to the big cities, where they waited for 10 or 15 years, suffering and getting sick in the camps. For what?”

To Abebe, the Jewish education programs at the synagogue in Gondar — in which the Falash Mura prepared for their conversion — are an illustration of what the Jewish Agency did wrong.

“It’s a factory of dolls [in Gondar], all in the name of God,” he said, adding that some of the Falash Mura continue practicing Christianity after they reach Israel. “They go to the churches here in Jerusalem… And I think it’s caused serious damage to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. It introduced a sense of doubt about our Jewish roots.”

He clarified, however, that his fight isn’t with the Falash Mura who are in Israel, such as the teens on the Samai trip to Ethiopia. “Once they come to Israel, they are a part of me. They become part of my community. I embrace them,” he said. “My disagreement is with what’s going on over there, in Gondar.”

A ‘double identity crisis’

David Mihret is an Ethiopian-Israeli community leader who runs empowerment programs for 11,000 Ethiopian youth in 145 schools around Israel in conjunction with the Education Ministry.

A jovial man, Mihret, who has sage-like patience, was one of the driving forces behind the teens’ Samai trip — his reason for being in Gondar. At a Gondar guesthouse, Mihret spoke softly, his voice nearly blending in with the garden’s crickets.

Echoing Seyum, he warned that Israel had set itself on a slippery slope by opening immigration up to the Falash Mura.

‘Unless Israel wants to change its flag to an Ethiopian one, it needs to be firm about who it’ll take in’

“Look, it was originally supposed to be 8,000 [Falash Mura] who came, and it ended up being over 50,000,” Mihret explained. “Unless Israel wants to change its flag to an Ethiopian one, it needs to be firm about who it’ll take in. A lot of Ethiopians can claim some sort of Jewish heritage,” he warned.

Reluctant to be overly critical of the Falash Mura’s mass immigration to Israel, Mihret said that the important aspect of their aliya isn’t how it was done or why it happened the way it did, but how to successfully integrate the community into Israel.

He put it this way: “The Falash Mura have a tough time when they get to Israel… They really face a double identity crisis. It’s hard enough for Ethiopian [Jews] to adjust to life in Israel. The Falash Mura have another layer of adjustment to go through — not only into Israeli society but also into the Ethiopian Jewish community. Their legitimacy is constantly put in question, making it that much harder for them to find their place in [Israeli] society.”

Although the first Ethiopian Jews to make aliya, like Mihret or Abebe, had a difficult time when they got to Israel — there weren’t Amharic-speaking Jewish Agency employees to greet them at their absorption centers located in the periphery, or a developed Ethiopian civil society to soften their landing — they derived strength from having conviction in their Jewish backgrounds.

Before moving to Israel, Mihret was an illiterate shepherd who walked barefoot with his animals in the fields. He also came from a tight-knit, devout Jewish village in northern Ethiopia. “We had other customs. We didn’t wear kippas like this,” he said, teasingly, as he checked to make sure his was still covering his head.

What the government should focus on now, Mihret said, is better incorporating the Falash Mura who are already in Israel. “Most people don’t really differentiate between us, the Beta Israel, and Falash Mura, anyway. Actually, I bet some Israelis think of us and the Eritreans and the Sudanese as one and the same too,” he quipped, still flashing a smile.

Mihret’s work with Ethiopian-Israeli teens is his way of creating a robust Ethiopian ethos in Israel, regardless of their origin.

“A lot of Ethiopian youth underachieve and suffer from low self-confidence. They feel lost and can’t find their place in Israel,” he said. Connecting the experience of the Falash Mura teens on the Samai trip to that of the Israeli-Ethiopian community at large, Mihret said that what’s important for the youth is finding the “missing link” that helps them link their Ethiopian past to their Israeli future.

“People who know where they came from — people whose personal experience relates to that of their collective group — can adapt to life better. They come from a place of confidence,” he said. “They have happy dreams and healthy thoughts. They gain perspective. They can seek closure.”

The ones who stayed

The Jewish Agency-run school in Gondar was abuzz when the group of Ethiopian-Israeli teens came to visit during the final leg of their trip last winter.

The golden-morning sun beat down on a wide field of dry patchy grass. The pupils greeted their Israeli visitors like rock stars. They sang traditional Amharic tunes and danced, and showed off their Hebrew vocabulary. They played trust-building games using ropes and water guns; they bolted around the field in excitement.

At the front of the classrooms, Amharic poems were painted in pastel-colored Hebrew letters. Young boys donned woven kippas and tallit, and the girls, shy and coquettish, wore long blue skirts and white jackets.

The school, a vestige of NACOEJ’s humanitarian programs in Ethiopia, was the only one in the area that boasted a computer lab. It was also one of the Jewish Agency’s informal training grounds where Falash Mura children acclimated to Jewish life. Its pupils doubled up on Jewish and Hebrew studies in addition to the local curriculum.

Under the Jewish Agency, the school carried in its air the same exuberance that might have been seen in a post-World War II camp for displaced children heading to Palestine — minus the horror of death. The students were euphoric about being en route to Eretz Yisrael, the Promised Land.

Most of those students have since come to Israel. But other youngsters whose families weren’t approved for aliya are still in Gondar, drowning in their defeat. For many of those families, the possibility of moving to Israel was worth the risk of trading their villages for Gondar, where they picked up Jewish practices and immersed themselves in the religion — not a simple feat in a country where open hostility against Jews still exists. Some were ostracized from their old villages in the process.

The “dream of Israel” was planted in Gondar over 20 years ago, and the seeds continued to sprout despite the government’s intermittent insistence that mass immigration was coming to an end, for real. A symbol that this truly was the end came with the winding down of the Jewish Agency’s operations in Gondar last week, when the keys to the school were handed over to Gondar’s mayor.

The ineligible Falash Mura are the ones who have waited for Israel in vain, caught in the crosshairs of fluctuating politics and shifting criteria. After the dust of Operation Dove’s Wings settles, what will become of them, the people who have become strangers in their own land? Some will try returning to their former villages, where the false hope of aliya no longer taunts them — but the road back won’t be an easy one.

And as positive as immigration has been for the chosen Falash Mura — the ones in the new land, returned to Zion with hopes of financial security and social mobility — their journeys will forever be marred by sadness for the ones they left behind.

The writer was the guest of the Jewish Agency in Gondar, Ethiopia.

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