Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ethiopia's Falash Mura: The Ongoing Struggle for a Jewish Home

Zera Israel community, Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo by Vanessa

For most communities, this Rosh Hashanah, like every Jewish New Year, was a time of celebration. The beginning of 5774 was a time for recognizing the opportunities for change, for rebuking old ways and for seeking enrichment. It was a time for sweetness, and appreciating the better qualities of our fellow Jews.

But in one sizable community this year, that certainly wasn’t the meaning of Rosh Hashanah. The past won’t be something to shirk or to overcome, but something embrace, and possibly, to fear.

Most of us can’t imagine what the Ethiopian Jewish community of Beta Israel ( who are often referred to by the pejorative name Falash Mura but are properly called the Beta Israel, and their descendants, the Zera Israel) has gone through for the last 36 years, since the first airlift of refugees were taken to Israel in the 1970s. I, myself, find it difficult to comprehend what it must have been like to flee persecution in Ethiopia and moved en mass to a foreign city, only to wait a whole lifetime for a rescue that never came; to watch my children and grandchildren grow up in unexpected poverty, waiting for “fellow Jews” to return and rescue them; to be nurtured with expectation, classes, a synagogue and all the furnishings of a proper Jewish community so that when I and my children and my children’s children finally arrived in the Promised Land, we would know how to “properly” live as Jews.

A new immigrant (2009) The Jewish Agency
This last month, the Jewish Agency of Israel, acting under the auspices of the Israeli government, began closing down the community facilities that it had been operating in Gondar, Ethiopia for the last few decades. It didn’t just take away several thousand Ethiopian Jews and cancel the airlifts to Israel.

It closed the school, gave it away to a foreign secular agency and took away the synagogue that had served as religious and cultural lifeline for another 7,000 Zera Israel community members. By the end of the High Holy Days, the Jewish Agency will no longer be providing a synagogue.*

Those that remain Israel says, don’t need the school or the synagogue, much less any community support, because they are not Jewish.

Let’s be clear about this: Those remaining families have been worthy of fostering hope for the last 36 years. They received schooling in Jewish culture because they were part of the Beta Israel Jewish community and presumably had links that suggested their ancestors had at one time, practiced as Jews.  As a result, these 7,000 were taught how to pray as Jews and encouraged to abandon any other affiliation they had been raised with. They were encouraged to live as Jews, to cook as Jews, and to practice as Jews. Many of them endured persecution and discrimination as Jews just like those who were airlifted to Israel.

But because they cannot show Jewish lineage or demonstrate a familial link with someone in Israel (and there are millions of Jews throughout the world who know what that is like due to the Shoah), they aren’t considered eligible to be rescued and to join their community.

A synagogue in Ethiopia. Marc Baronnet
For the better part of 40 years, they endured in a dessert of hope, just like Moses did. Only so far, there has been no respite.

Arrivals, 1991. Govt Press Office, Israel
Israel has offered many reasons for this decision. Funding, limited resources, lack of information affirming Jewish lineage, unexpectedly difficult acculturation experiences for Israel’s current refugee population.

But when have human and financial limitations ever stopped Jews from living up to the moral imperative that they started?

And when did we become so sure of ourselves as a people that we could define not only who is Jewish, but who, after generations of living as Jews, have the right to continue to pray as Jews?

In a recent Tablet Magazine article, one dejected community member asked how they will continue to pray without a synagogue – and what the purpose is of being Jewish, if there is no synagogue.

“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.”

I found myself wondering how a community that had existed for thousands of years without outside affirmation could now have that point of view. Didn’t they remember that it was the minyan, not the structure that gave one the ability to pray?

An Ethiopian gentleman in Israel - Israel Assoc. for Ethiopian Jews 
For years, Beta Israel had prayed within mud or makeshift walls, undeterred by discrimination, war, attacks or persecution. They had lived as a community of Jewish congregants because they had the human will to pray as Jews, not because they had a Jewish house of prayer, or even a rabbi.

They had the confidence to know that history lives on despite what other human beings might do to them. Jews didn’t stop praying because someone tore down their synagogue or barred the door. They simply taught the next generation to carry on.

What changed?

That’s the question that Israel, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, need to ask themselves. How could a self-realized Jewish people be allowed to lose their hope in being Jews after thousands of years? Whether someone else recognized them as Jewish, the thing that allowed Israel to find and rescue the Beta Israel Jews, is that they never lost faith in their belief in Judaism.

A Israeli reuniting with his daughters during 2009 airlift. Jewish Agency

* As of the first week in September, the synagogue was taken over by Hatikvah, a community organization appointed by the Zera Israel community members to oversee the continuation of services and access to the synagogue. Services are continuing, particularly through the holidays. 

Meketa, a relief organization that has been working with the community, says that the Jewish Agency has ceased its work in Gondar. Support, Meketa says "is even more vital now that the Jewish Agency has ceased its operations."

Next post: The relief agencies assisting the remaining Zera Israel, and what others can do to assist.

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