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Israel Says There Are No More Jews in Ethiopia. Thousands Left Behind Disagree.

As final flights of Falash Mura leave for Israel, a community of Hebrew-speakers finds it is neither Jewish nor Ethiopian enough

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A man writes on the wall of the Beta Israel Community Primary School. (David Abraham Michael)
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Their tragedy was written on the wall. On a plaque of wet concrete, a man slowly engraved a sentence in Amharic. His inscription marked the closure of the Beta Israel Community Primary School—the only Jewish school in the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar. A memorial stone, if you like, it read, “This school was donated to the Gondar city administration by the Jewish Agency for Israel.”

A dozen students huddled nearby, watching silently as the man, an Ethiopian like them, sealed the fate of the place where they had spent years learning Hebrew, absorbing Torah, and nourishing the hope that they, too, might one day qualify for a precious visa to Israel. A teacher, sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel, consoled one who was sobbing.

This is how the Jewish presence in Gondar—until this month the centerpiece of a 35-year effort to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel—is coming to an end: not with a bang, but with these children whimpering in their school courtyard. Today, the final two planes in Israel’s last aliyah mission in Ethiopia, known as Operation Dove’s Wings, will carry away 450 Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century.

Because the Falash Mura aren’t considered halachically Jewish, they are ineligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and are required to undergo a conversion process on arrival in Israel to be considered Jewish. The Falash Mura participating in Operation Dove’s Wings have family already in Israel and have been granted visas under the Israeli Law of Entry for purposes of family reunification, capping a three-year mission that has brought more than 7,000 Ethiopians to Israel.

Yet they leave behind another 7,000 compatriots who don’t already have family in Israel or aren’t considered Jewish enough to qualify for entry under the Law of Return, which doesn’t recognize patrilineal descent. From this point onward, the only hope for those remaining in Gondar to get to Israel is via an appeals committee that was set up by Israel’s interior ministry, which will run out of a Jewish Agency office in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

With no Jews left, officially, to serve, the Jewish Agency has been gradually shutting down Gondar’s Israeli-sponsored Jewish infrastructure: the synagogue, which doubled as a community center; the mikveh; and the Beta Israel Community School, which enrolled 250 students. Last week, Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, flew to Gondar to hand over the keys of the school to Gondar’s Mayor Getnet Amare.

Before the ceremony, I searched for some of the 80 students included on the Israeli government’s authorized list for an interview about their imminent departure but found only those who were denied entry into Israel. There are 170 of them, the majority of the school. They have been refusing to attend class in protest against the closure of their school, their synagogue, and their window for making aliyah. Students destined to remain in Gondar have responded to the school’s closure in one of two ways, their teachers told me. Some have become withdrawn, while others have grown disruptive, blaming their Jewish Agency-provided instructors for the devastating change. One angry student threatened to walk to Israel, via Sudan, himself. “We are angry,” said Melkamu Nega, a 16-year-old student, in fluent Hebrew. “We liked it at this school. Here we learn about Judaism. There are Muslims and Christians at the other schools, that’s why we prefer it here.”

I wondered how Melkamu would maintain his fine Hebrew after his Israeli instructors depart. His knowledge of Jewish tradition, of Israel, and his command over the Hebrew language are on par with those of the kids who are packing their bags this week. Through many seasons spent observing Jewish holidays in synagogue and attending Hebrew classes at the school he, along with the others who are remaining behind, have formed a rich, partly Hebrew-speaking, community of people who feel Jewish. A slogan painted on the façade of the school reads: “The end of immigration won’t mean the end of a Jewish or Israeli presence in Ethiopia.” That may be true, but however Jewish Melkamu and his friends believe themselves to be, it isn’t Jewish enough.

Melkamu’s anger was, perhaps, inevitable. Two years ago, when the Jewish Agency took over the school, staff advised the parents of students deemed ineligible for Operation Dove’s Wings to send their children to another school to spare them any illusion about their status. Nearly all of them kept their kids enrolled at the school—in many cases, because it provided free lunches, rather than in vain hope of winning passage to Israel. When I asked the senior Jewish Agency official in Gondar, Asher Seyum—himself born in Ethiopia—for his opinion on the situation, he expressed empathy but said there was nothing he could do. “They feel they are Jewish, they study at a Jewish school,” he acknowledged. “And despite that, they are not approved by the Israeli Government. It is very difficult for them. I can understand it. But what can I say to them? ‘Don’t worry, it will be fine’?” He paused, frowning.  “A decision is made by the government of Israel,” he went on, “and my job is to act on that.”

***

The Friday night Shabbat service at the synagogue earlier this month presented a scene straight out of a Zionist youth movement camp brochure. More than 100 Ethiopian children clung to the fresh batch of Israeli volunteers from Project TEN, a Jewish Agency subsidiary whose Jewish and Israeli volunteers collaborate with local NGOs, teaching at local schools and orphanages, educating street kids, and helping single mothers establish independent farms. In the few minutes following my arrival, I heard only Hebrew.

About 350 congregants were praying inside the synagogue when I arrived. The women were dressed in shrouds of white—special garb saved for Shabbat, the High Holidays, and the day they will arrive on Israeli soil. The congregation chanted “Am Yisrael Chai,” and the rabbi finished off the service with a sermon delivered in Amharic. The congregation spilled out into the street, only to return at 7 a.m. the next day for shacharit service. It was eerie to think that by the close of September, this building—also a kindergarten and community kitchen—will most likely be empty.

The Falash Mura present a uniquely difficult case for the Israeli government’s aliyah programs. Hundreds of families left their villages two decades ago to pursue a single ambition—a future in Israel—after the Israeli government airlifted 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in a dramatic 36-hour operation in 1991. The Falash Mura have lived in Gondar since then in conditions not far removed from a transit camp, waiting for visas.

Tali Aronsky, spokesperson for the Jewish Agency, said there is talk of supporting the community going forward, but ultimately the organization’s official assignment in Gondar is now over. “We are not assigned to be there to ensure the longevity of the community,” Aronsky told me. “In terms of providing a local rabbi and kosher meat, that’s not what we were brought in to do in Gondar.” The Jewish Agency has, however, decided to keep Gondar’s synagogue open for services throughout the upcoming Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Elad Sonn, a spokesman for the minster for immigrant absorption, said that going forward, the welfare of the Falash Mura in Gondar falls on the shoulders of the Ethiopian government. “We are talking about sovereignty,” Sonn told me. “It is not Israeli sovereignty over there, in the same way that we can’t have different governments bearing responsibility for the welfare of people who are living here.”

As the congregation filed out of the synagogue, Workineh Atalay, a 16-year-old, wearing a navy cotton sweater and worn rubber sandals, angrily demanded an interview. The obvious consequence of losing the synagogue, he said urgently, is the loss of Gondar’s Jewish community. “There will be no Jews living here if there is no synagogue,” he said. “When there are no more Jews living and praying together, Shabbat is nonsense. God says be with each other and I will be with you—there is no meaning in Shabbat when we are not all together.”

We talked by the gate inside the synagogue, the only one in Gondar, where there is a clear Christian majority. There are more than 50 churches in and around the city, 10 of which are located in the city center, near the synagogue. “The synagogue is where all the Jews of Gondar are together,” Atalay repeated, as congregants dispersed. “If there is no synagogue, the people will never come together, and they will change their religion to Christianity or Islam.”

No one I spoke with, not even the Jewish Agency staff overseeing the final wave of aliyah, disagreed. “The question is whether we should hope that they will keep it,” said Tsofia Fuichtwanger, the aliyah and educational coordinator for the Jewish Agency in Gondar. “If the Israeli government doesn’t see them as truly Jewish, then they can’t go to Israel. They are rejected because they are Christians. I hope for them that they will stay here and have a good life here, and I don’t think the good way to be a part of this society in Gondar is to be Jewish.”

But for many of Gondar’s Falash Mura, it’s too late. Jewish timetables regulate the pulse of each day. The week is punctuated by the Shabbat break. The comfort of their Jewish identity and the concomitant promise of Israel has defined their very existence. Fuichtwanger summed up the sad irony of denying many of Gondar’s Falash Mura the chance to join the families making aliyah: “They are more Jewish than many people their age in Israel.”

And they are treated as Jews by their fellow Ethiopians. They report having been denied housing and work because of their Jewish affiliation. Falash Mura students at non-Jewish public schools are bullied for being Jewish—and, in some cases, even for being cast aside by the Israeli government. “I am neither Jewish nor Ethiopian,” said Atalay, the teenager I met at the Shabbat service. “They will always say that I was rejected. This is a big shame for me.”

***

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The Last Days of Gondar

Photographs by David Abraham Michael
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