Definition of 'Jew' confronts Israel

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews who were pressured to convert to Christianity are waiting to move to Israel.

Mikoyet Zighaya is an Israeli with a grievance.

Dressed in army fatigues, his black beret tucked onto his shoulder, he joined a protest this week of more than a thousand Ethiopian Israelis. They demanded that their relatives be brought to Israel in keeping with a government decision last year to expedite the immigration of about 20,000 Ethiopians waiting to join previous waves and trickles of Ethiopian immigrants.

But now several key ministers are starting to openly question the decision, citing a lack of funding and raising questions about the Jewishness of those waiting. Mr. Zighaya's hopes of being reunited with his handicapped father, Albache, who has been waiting to come to Israel for six years, appear to be fading.

A banner nearby proclaims: "Blacks are Jews, too," and the crowd, holding up pictures of their relatives, chants "Mama," "Papa," "Sister," "Grandma."

"Sometimes I ask myself why I serve this country when they are casting away my father," Zighaya says.

The vast majority of those waiting are Falash Mura, people whose ancestors converted to Christianity under pressure or by choice but who consider themselves Jews.

The controversy over whether they should be allowed to immigrate en masse from their huts and shacks - where they survive off the largesse of American Jewish donors - pits the once-sacred ethos of ingathering Jewish exiles against the vagaries of Israeli politics. And it raises tough questions not only about how Israel defines who is a Jew but also whether color and economic status determine who can become Israeli.

The issue, which began bubbling when Ethiopian Israelis saw the cabinet decision was not being implemented, erupted last week. Absorption Minister Tzipi Livne said flatly that there is not enough money to implement a rapid, large-scale immigration.

Thursday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that the current pace of immigration - about 300 Ethiopians a month - is too slow. "We have to take all considerations into account, but I would very much like to see this problem behind us," he told Israel radio from Ethiopia.

Livne says it is far more expensive to absorb Ethiopians than other immigrants. In an affirmative action to make up for their impoverished background - most were farmers - the government pays for Ethiopian immigrants to live in absorption centers for two years and underwrites their mortgages. Often the older generation is unable to adjust to Israel's high-tech market economy, which means they are given extended welfare payments. Livne says that many among those waiting are opportunists simply claiming to be Jewish in order to gain access to a better life in Israel.

Her critics, however, argue that during past waves, including that of hundreds of thousands of North African Jews during the 1950s, cost was never an obstacle. "When did the state of Israel ever make economic calculations about immigration?" says Avraham Neguise, head of an advocacy group for Ethiopians. "They travel the world trying to encourage immigration from Russia, the United States, and Canada, but for Ethiopians, they do not have enough money. I do not want to say this is racism. I prefer to call it a misunderstanding."

But the Falash Mura's woes are as much political as economic. They have both patrons and opponents in Israel's fractious multiparty system.

The decision to bring them to Israel was spearheaded by Shas, an ultraorthodox Sephardic party that controlled the interior ministry. After elections last February, the ministry passed into the hands of Avraham Poraz, from the secularist, middle-class Shinui Party. Mr. Poraz stalled and charged that Shas wanted the immigrants only because it saw them as potential voters.

Ethiopian Israelis, who number 85,000, many of whom arrived with great fanfare during epic rescue operations, are the worst-off group among the country's Jewish population. Despite some success stories, many Ethiopians have had trouble adjusting. Twice as many Ethiopians drop out of high school as other Israelis, and 47 percent of Ethiopian adults do not participate in the labor force, twice the national average, according to a 2002 survey.

Shlomo Amar, Israel's chief rabbi, has welcomed the Falash Mura back to the fold. He ruled last spring that they are from "the seed of Israel" and added that to dispel any doubt they should undergo a conversion ceremony after study in Israel. When opponents of the immigration seized upon the latter point, Mr. Amar wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stressing that the Falash Mura are "complete Jews without any doubt." Noting their trying conditions in Ethiopia, he added that it is a divine commandment to speed up their immigration and "save them from the gates of death."

Livne, however, distinguishes between the Ethiopian Jews who came in previous immigration waves and the Falash Mura. "There are Ethiopian Jews who dreamed about Jerusalem, and there is this group," she says, adding that they are "non-Jews because they converted to Christianity."

The debate is not merely academic. Immigration to Israel has traditionally been based on the "Law of Return," which gives even the grandchild of a Jew and his spouse the right to immigrate but disqualifies those who practice another religion. "The difference is not between Europeans and Africans, it is between Jews and non-Jews under the Law of Return," Livne says.

That legal argument masks a double standard between Russian immigrants and the Falash Mura, Livne's critics say. They stress that a large number of Russian Christians entered Israel under the Law of Return during the 1990s, when a million people from the former Soviet Union immigrated. But the Falash Mura, many of whom have become religiously observant during their wait, are being excluded by the same law.

Zighaya, who in addition to his father has dozens of other relatives waiting in Ethiopia, says the problem is that Ethiopian Israelis have no political power. "The politicians do whatever they want to us," he says. "This is not about money, this is about racism."

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