By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute
Pioneers on a Journey in the Desert
Next week, on Yom Yerushalayim, the Jews of Ethiopia commemorate a day of memorial for 4,000 people who lost their lives on their way through the long and treacherous deserts of Sudan to Eretz Yisrael. It is good and proper that the elders of the community and the government of Israel have decided to commemorate their actions on this date of the twenty-eighth of Iyar. Their eyes were constantly pointed in the direction of Jerusalem, and they fell on a wearying journey towards redemption with the goal-prayer " Orsalem" (Jerusalem) on their lips. I will never forget the image of a group of men and women from among the community of "Beita Yisrael" who gathered together for prayer in a shack serving as a synagogue, in a picturesque forest in the city of Addis Ababa. I visited there in the late 90's as part of my role as the head of the Conversion Authority, together with their friend and savior, Rabbi Menachem Waldman. I seem to remember that aside from the Kaisim and some intellectual youths, the prayers consisted of only a single word, which was repeated as a mantra and as an eternal goal: "Orsalem, Orsalem..."
The Ethiopian Aspect of the Broadening of the Coalition
Let us take a great leap forward from that past memory to current Israeli politics. The expansion of the coalition, changes in the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, and all of the ramifications of these events took place in part as a direct consequence of the Ethiopian situation. Likud MK's Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem threatened the Prime Minister and the coalition government, and they even refrained from taking part in some important votes in the Knesset, until a decision was made to bring another 9,000 Olim from Ethiopia, with a promise that this "will be the last group ever." This last phrase has been repeated in the last decade ten or more times, and the government was finally forced to give in to the strong pressure from many groups, including foreign governments and lobbyists, mainly from the United States.
Beita Yisrael and the Falashmura
Let us take a moment to clarify the background and some basic facts for our readers from my point of view. The Jews of Ethiopia have been in constant contact with the other Jews of the world for more than a hundred years. Many scholars have identified them, based among other things on Jewish sources from the era of the Geonim, as remnants of the Tribe of Dan, which was sent into exile beyond the "Dark Mountains" with the Ten Tribes before the destruction of the First Temple. Many halachic discussions have taken place about recognizing them as Jews, and the government of Israel granted them rights under the Law of Return, after a decision by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who based his reasoning on a responsa of the Radbaz in the sixteenth century. (The truth is that there might be some problems with this responsa, but "who will come to argue once the King has decided?") In the wake of Rabbi Yosef's ruling, tens of thousands of the Beita Yisrael community were brought to Israel in Operation Moshe (1984) and Operation Shlomo (1981), which were carried out with great initiative and much pomp. It is true that the Chief Rabbis at the time, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, ruled that they must be immersed in a mikveh as a stringent move, but many of the people did not do so, since they were in any case accepted as full citizens, following the responsa of Rabbi Yosef.
However, the end has not yet come, even after these grandiose operations. Thousands of the Falashmura communities, who were originally part of Beita Yisrael but who converted to Christianity (and who clearly took part in mixed marriages with other Ethiopians) made their way to the camps of the Olim, waiting to be brought to Israel. Some of them were related to previous Olim from Beita Yisrael, but none of them had rights under the Law of Return. They were never recognized as Jews – and please do not allow yourselves to be confused about the facts. The government of Israel acted in a gesture of kindness, mainly in response to American charity organizations which preferred to send the people to the Middle East and not to California or Pennsylvania, and it decided to allow them to enter Israel on quotas as non-Jews, as a humanitarian act! The Falashmura have indeed been brought here slowly starting in the 90's, and they are required to go through a minimal conversion process suitable for their status, after they have graduated from special conversion ulpanim in absorption centers. And those who do not pass through this conversion are also allowed to stay, as a humanitarian gesture.
Now and then, activist groups have managed, with strong political pressure, to force the government to accept additional groups, using such formulas as, "Only another 5,000, that's all!" MK Avraham Neguise, who found himself in the position of a deciding factor within the coalition, raised the price to "another 9,000, and that's it." Clearly this is an overdose! This entire matter is excessive in the eyes of many Kaisim, among the elders of Beita Yisrael, who view the Falashmura as a foreign element and not as Jewish brothers. As far as I can see, the number of Falashmura is more than the number of original members of Beita Yisrael.