Black Jews Seek Promised Land


UNDETERRED by the complaints of Ethiopian Jews who have had trouble being assimilated in Israeli society, hundreds more here are waiting for to be delivered to the Promised Land.

Israeli diplomats in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa say that the Ethiopian government has given them carte blanche to allow Ethiopians of Jewish decent to leave for Israel. Between 120 and 140 Jews are leaving monthly on commercial flights. Most of those granted visas are being reunited with families who left in dramatic airlifts during Ethiopia's civil war in the mid-1980s and in 1991.

For the several thousand remaining Ethiopian Jews, who live in an unmarked compound in the capital or tiny mountain hamlets in northern Ethiopia, the lure of the Promised Land has endured since Biblical times.

"We were raised to say 'Next year in Jerusalem,' " says Zewdu Berhane, a leader of the 2,689 people who claim Jewish ancestry and camp out in the muddy compound awaiting visas. "We're still saying it."

Around him, a congregation prayed in Hebrew, like Jews all over the world, in celebration of the Passover holiday. Children nibbled on the traditional unleavened bread, matzo. They had to sit outside in the chilly drizzle on splintered benches because there was not enough room in the simple synagogue fashioned out of thatch and wood poles.

Many of those at the compound are actually Jews who converted to Christianity. They were left behind for not being real Jews during the last airlift in 1991. They have refused to budge, their food and education supplied by a New York-based aid agency, the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC). Several hundred more Jews, called Falashas, live in remote villages.

Requests for visas are reviewed case by case by the Israeli Embassy, an excruciating process of suspense for applicants. Precedence is normally given to villagers because they did not convert to Christianity, rather than to those at the compound.

The representative here of AJDC, a Jewish group, says many of the Ethiopians were forced to convert under persecution but nonetheless retained many Jewish customs. "Some people say they are Christians. But in fact they do not practice Christian ethics. They are more Jewish than some Jews," says Girma Tolossa.

He points to the poverty of the community. "It is miserable to live in this place for four years, not knowing what your future is. No one would do it without a compelling reason."

The Falashas' departure is the final chapter of a long Jewish presence in this ancient country. Ethiopia is mentioned in the Bible more than two- dozen times, and according to oral history, it was settled by Noah's great-grandson.

Local tradition also has it that the Ark of the Covenant rests in Axum, the city that allegedly was the Queen of Sheba's realm. The son she had with King Solomon founded Ethiopia's royal dynasty.

What is certain is that the Judaic influence on Christianity here has been deep since the 4th century. The Biblical New and Old Testaments are of equal value to most Ethiopian Christians. Many follow Judaic traditions, such as dietary laws, Saturday Sabbath, and male circumcision.

Falashas have been looked down upon and until this century denied the right to own land. Most were artisans, a disparaged profession. They lived mainly in the northern Simien Mountains, the Tigray region, and in the city of Gonder.

Today, a few hundred Falashas remain in remote mountain hamlets. Many keep quiet. "They are scared people will seize their lands," says Agegnehu Dargei, who is from the village of Dambia. "The Christians never treated us well. They called us evil eye and said we ate babies."

All that is left of the Jewish tradition in Gonder are the black clay figurines, sold to tourists, of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, and Stars of David. Ironically, they are sold by the very people who seized the Falashas' land when they fled to Israel.

"Many people were glad the Falashas left. They were hated because their beliefs were wrong," says Geber-Krstoes Shemeles, who peddles the Falasha wares.

For those who have remained behind, it is a lonely life. Tedesse Jacob and his daughter, Marta, chose to stay in Addis Ababa when most of their relatives and friends emigrated to Israel.

Mr. Jacob, arguably Ethiopia's most prominent Falasha, who was an agriculture minister under the late Emperor Haile Selassie, says that he was born here, raised here, and plans to die here. But it is not without a certain melancholy that the elderly man shows a visitor his personal archive of yellowed newspaper articles, documentation of an ancient culture that is likely to die out in the Promised Land.

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