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13 Feb, 2010 05:35

Ethiopian Jews: trapped in-between

When black Jews were in Ethiopia their neighbors called them “falasha,” or “strangers.” Now that they are in Israel, many of them still feel like they are the strangers.

It is not that the Jewish state did not do its share to integrate them. It is just that it has not done enough, some argue.

About 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live today in Israel. Many came in two dramatic airlifts. In 1984 thousands were secretly flown from refugee camps on the Sudanese border. As many as 4,000 had died trying to get to those camps before Sudan was forced by the Arab world to stop allowing the airlifts. A thousand people were left behind. Later, in 1991, amid threats of Ethiopia descending into civil war, the seats were removed from 34 commercial planes and the world record set for the most passengers on a single plane.

The Israeli government says it flew out every Ethiopian Jew, but Abraham Neguise says thousands were left behind. Abraham Neguise, founder of the South Wing to Zion, says he knows why.

“If these people would have been in Europe, in Russia or in the US, they would have brought them long ago,”
he said. “But these people are not doctors, professors, engineers or businessmen. And politicians and ministers have economic considerations.”

Today, though, the big question is: are these people Jewish? Israeli society is divided in its answer. Which is why thousands of families remain divided ­ with half in Israel, half in Ethiopia.

Dasash Molla’s mother gave her this name because in Amharic it means to “look after.” But ironically, Dasash cannot take care of her mother because the authorities refuse to let her come to Israel.

“Every week I’d go to the Ministry of Interior and fill in all the forms,” Dasash said. “And each time they’d tell me to come back in one month, two months – it has taken ages. Finally they told me that there was a new law that anyone who had on the mother’s side a grand-grand-grandmother who was not a Jew didn’t have the right to get Israeli citizenship, so this means my mother has no right to come here.”

Her story is one of many. Now 8,700 Ethiopians are waiting in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar to emigrate to Israel. They gave up everything they owned to move to the transit camp, but many Israeli officials believe that most of them are Christians claiming Jewish links as a way to escape poverty for the relative comfort of the Jewish state.

Indeed, despite the hardships Ethiopians face in Israel, there are plenty of success stories. Like Ester Almo, who came to Israel when she was 4 years old. Today she is a well-known photographer, but still feels caught between her present and past.

“What can I tell you?” she said. “I feel I am in the middle. When I go to wedding parties with my family, I feel I am different and not connected anymore to the tradition and the things they are doing, like dancing.”

Adno Gethahun’s story also has a happy ending. When he arrived in Israel 12 years ago, he left behind five children and his first wife. Every few years one of them was given permission to join him.

“It was very difficult for me to leave behind my children,” Adno said. “I was always worrying about them. But I never gave up hope I’d see them again. When my youngest daughter finally came here four months ago, I couldn’t believe it until I spoke with her on the telephone. Finally, all my family is together.”

Ethiopian Jews are believed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. But now that they have been found, it is unclear how many are still missing.