On Judaism's holiest day, Ethiopian Jews protest rabbis' restrictions

Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, brought an almost unearthly silence Wednesday to the city Jews hold most holy. The city's stillness was broken only by the shouts of nonobservant-Jewish children playing and the rhythmic, mournful chanting of men at prayer in packed synagogues that are sometimes spaced only a few houses apart.

The most dramatic sight, however, was the gathering of several hundred Ethiopian Jews across the street from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue and Chief Rabbinate, the ultimate religious authority in Israel.

Wedged between the Chief Rabbinate and the luxurious Jerusalem Plaza Hotel on a narrow strip of greenbelt and a large stone plaza, the Ethiopians have held a stubborn vigil for the last three weeks.

They are demanding that the chief rabbis rescind their ruling that Ethiopian immigrants undergo a ritual immersion before marriage.

By taking their demonstration to the streets, the Ethiopians have stirred enormous controversy and attracted the support of diverse groups. They have also angered the Orthodox religious community, which views its protest as an effort to undermine rabbinical authority.

Just before Yom Kippur began, some 100 rabbis from around the country presented a petition to the Chief Rabbinate, urging it to stand firm in the dispute with the Ethiopians. Issues of Halacha, Jewish law, could not be compromised, the rabbis said.

The Ethiopians, however, seem equally determined not to compromise. Nonstop negotiations between the rabbis, on one side, and the Ethiopians, their representatives, and the Absorption Ministry on the other, broke down on the eve of Yom Kippur Tuesday morning. Even a last-minute personal plea from Prime Minister Shimon Peres that they return to their absorption centers for the fast failed to move the Ethiopians.

``We don't want to convert, because we are Jews and we don't want to be Jews again,'' said Malki Pesach, a young Ethiopian Jew who said he had camped in front of the Chief Rabbinate since the start of the demonstration. ``I will stay as long as I have to,'' he said, adding that he had come from the Negev desert town of Beersheba with 14 other members of his family to protest.

Mr. Pesach came to Israel last winter during the secret airlift called Operation Moses that evacuated some 10,000 Ethiopian Jews, also called Falashas, from refugee camps in the Sudan and brought them to Israel.

For 10 years, ever since former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the Ethiopian Jews were remnants of the lost Hebrew tribe of Dan and therefore, Jews, Ethiopians had been trickling into Israel on their own or in smaller groups brought by Israelis and other Jews. Only when famine in Ethiopia drove them by the thousands to Sudanese refugee camps did the Israeli government organize massive airlifts to move the Ethiopians.

The origins of the Ethiopian Jews are unclear. What is certain, however, is that they practice an ancient form of Judaism and do not follow the rabbinical teachings that mainstream Jews adopted after the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of the Jews 2,000 years ago.

The Ethiopians discovered upon arrival in Israel that although the secular government accepted them as Jews and gave them immediate Israeli citizenship, the majority of Orthodox rabbis still questioned their Jewishness.

Specifically, the rabbis question the validity of Ethiopian divorce procedures. Doubts about certain individuals could cast a question over the entire Ethiopian community unless they all underwent ritual conversion, the rabbis argue.

Ethiopians who arrived here in the earlier migrations generally accepted the conversion procedures. But after the flood of Ethiopians arrived in Operation Moses, they began to question the need to convert. That questioning has gradually grown more militant and culminated in the confrontation with the Chief Rabbis.

``This is the only problem which hurts everyone, no one can sleep quietly at night because of it,'' says Tuvia Semani, an Ethiopian who lives in Bat Yam. He underwent ritual conversion when he came to Israel 11 years ago. ``When we came here then, we were lonely and no one explained to us what it meant. They told us that every immigrant has to do this. If you don't do this you'll be out of the country. But after, we found out that it was not true. When the others came [in Operation Moses], we took the d ecision that it was time to struggle,'' Mr. Semani says.

Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism and several leftist members of the Israeli parliament have joined in the Ethiopians' struggle. Several hotels, the Jerusalem municipality, and individual Israelis have donated food, water, clothes, blankets, and even beds to the demonstrators.

As well-dressed worshippers walked to the Great Synagogue Wednesday, they passed the Ethiopians, many wrapped in traditional cotton prayer robes, praying with their kessim -- religious leaders -- on the sidewalk opposite the synagogue.

Ethiopian men, women, and children sought shelter under twisted olive trees, in tents and under tarps from the hot sun as they chanted the prayers and observed the fast that their fellow Jews observed.

``The problem is that the Ethiopians are not like other sects that are willing to follow their own practices and forget about the Orthodox rabbis,'' says Michael Corinaldi, an Israeli lawyer who has represented the Ethiopians in various court cases through the years. ``They want to join the people of Israel. They are asking the rabbis to accept them and to accept them as full and complete Jews.''

One Israeli official said that the government expects a compromise to be reached with the Ethiopians later this week that will put an end to the demonstration. The general outline of it will probably allow the Ethiopian kessim, or priests, to rule on individual cases of divorce. Their rulings would then be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, and Ethiopian couples would be allowed to have Orthodox marriages.

``The problem will be solved in a pragmatic way,'' predicts Mr. Corinaldi. ``Generally, in Israel, the system of solving problems is a pragmatic one, not a dogmatic one. There are so many disputes that to settle them dogmatically would mean that they woud not be settled at all.''

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