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Exodus Is on Hold for Would-Be Israelis

THE WORLD

In Ethiopia's capital, thousands live in limbo as they await approval to immigrate. But officials must first sort out who is a Jew and who isn't.

February 07, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In shantytowns scattered around the imposing Israeli Embassy here, thousands of self-described Ethiopian Jews wait idly, hoping one day to make it to the Promised Land.

They started flooding to Addis Ababa nearly a decade ago, expecting to join a massive migration to Israel. Now many are caught in limbo. They abandoned their jobs, homes and in some cases even religious beliefs, but are uncertain whether they will ever join a resettlement program bogged down by budget constraints, political whims and an international debate over who is a Jew.

Like many, Haymanot Hailu, 34, moved eight years ago to a one-room metal shack in the shadow of the heavily guarded hillside embassy. She and her husband gave up a comfortable life as sorghum farmers in the green hills of the north to bring their six children to Ethiopia's congested capital. Neither has been able to find steady work, and they barely earn enough as day laborers to feed the family.

They are sustained by one dream: to go to Israel, where, Hailu says, her sister is waiting.

"I miss our old life very much, but now I try to forget it," she said. "I'm only looking forward. There's no going back. I don't know what we will do if we don't go. We are Jews and we want to go to the Promised Land."

It's unclear whether Hailu, and thousands like her, will be judged by Israeli authorities as eligible for relocation. Many are suspected of feigning Jewish roots to trade an often impoverished existence for a more comfortable, government-subsidized life in Israel. Others simply won't qualify under eligibility rules, which require them to have relatives living in Israel.

"We can't estimate how many are waiting for nothing," said Ori Konforti, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Addis Ababa, which has been appointed by the Israeli government to sort out who is a Jew and which Jews qualify for immigration. A final list of those eligible for resettlement is expected in June.

"It's a tragedy," he said. "We're going to give many people -- maybe hundreds, maybe thousands -- a negative answer."

Israel's ambitious resettlement efforts have relocated more than 50,000 Ethiopian Jews over the last 20 years. These potters and weavers, known as Beta Israel, or Falasha, are believed by some to be lost descendants of the ancient tribe of Dan, perhaps emigrating from what is now Israel to Egypt nearly 2,000 years ago.

Many Ethiopians believe the first Jews arrived here 1,000 years before that with Menelik I, allegedly the son of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. According to Ethiopian legend, Menelik and a group of Hebrew scholars left Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant, containing the original Ten Commandments, which some believe still rest in a church in the northern city of Aksum.

Other scholars speculate that Ethiopian Jews are former Christians who broke with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church several hundred years ago and began practicing Judaism.

Whatever the origin, the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel had undeniably Jewish roots. Though they had lived in isolated areas of Ethiopia, in the northwestern region of Gondar, they retained Jewish traditions such as observing the Sabbath. Stars of David survived in the communities, and some of their language was similar to Hebrew.

Most of these Ethiopians left their homeland in dramatic airlifts, one during a famine in 1984 and a second in 1991 when the country's then-communist government collapsed. Today only a handful of the original Beta Israel remain.

The current controversy surrounds a second group, the so-called Falash Mura, who say their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries or opted to forsake their religion to escape social ostracism and economic discrimination.

After watching the first wave of Ethiopian Jews depart, thousands of Falash Mura rushed to embrace their Jewish roots and claim rights under Israel's Law of Return. Estimates of this group range from 15,000 to 25,000, including 2,500 to 5,000 in Addis Ababa.

Skeptics have questioned some of the claims.

"It's a very convenient story if you want to go to Israel," said historian Richard Pankhurst, founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. "But there is no evidence of forced conversion in Ethiopian history."

Jewish scholars also have debated whether the Falash Mura should be considered Jews. For most of the last 15 years, Israel has resisted calls to resume massive airlifts for them.

Would-be immigrants are increasingly frustrated.

"The Israeli government hasn't kept its promises," said Getnet Mengesha, 36, a Falash Mura community leader in Addis Ababa who moved from Gondar in 1998.

Last fall, he and several hundred other Falash Mura in the capital went on a hunger strike for three days, demanding the right to emigrate and defending their Jewish roots.

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