Passed over at Passover?

GONDER, Ethiopia What makes someone Jewish? Standing beside what appears to be the largest pile of matza ever baked, a cheery Getu Zemene makes the…

GONDER, Ethiopia

What makes someone Jewish?

Standing beside what appears to be the largest pile of matza ever baked, a cheery Getu Zemene makes the question almost impossible to answer.

  “There are exactly 228,374 loaves here,” says Zemene, the chairman of the Gonder Beta-Israel Association.

The loaves have been prepared to feed 12,000 Jews in Gonder during Passover. But to Zemene, they are a statement of intent.

They say his community is Jewish, whether Israel accepts it or not. And at the moment, it appears Israel doesn’t.

The Jewish state considers most Jews living in Ethiopia to be a watered-down religious community.

Israeli scholars believe their ancestors were converted to Christianity several generations ago and the community has only recently converted back to Judaism.

The perception of this impure past, as well as unspoken fears based on race and class, has seen the once tight-knit Jewish community, which resisted centuries of persecution in Christian Orthodox Ethiopia, torn in two.

With some unintentional help from Israel, that is.

Since 1984, more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews — known collectively as the Beta Israel — have immigrated to Israel through the Right of Return law.

The law allows any Jew, or any relative of any Israeli, the right to immigrate to the country and become a citizen.

Many Ethiopian Jews were rescued from the clutches of famine and war in 1991, during a dramatic airlift that saw planes fly some 14,000 Ethiopians — who walked to Sudan to catch them — to Israel in just 36 hours.

In fact, Ethiopians have formed the largest influx of Jews to Israel since the Russian immigration following the Second World War.

But as Ethiopia has emerged from being a basket case, Israel’s interest in allowing more of its Jews to immigrate seems to have fallen.

An estimated 20,000 still remain in Ethiopia. Many in Gonder have sold land and quit jobs in preparation to join their families, says Zemene.

The Right of Return law should, in theory, allow them to immigrate. But it appears Israel isn’t interested in putting out the welcome mat like before.

In 2005, under intense pressure from activists to increase the number Ethiopians it allows to immigrate, the Israeli government committed to allow 7,200 into the country each year. In practice, however, it has been admitting less than half that number.

Without incomes, many of those waiting to emigrate from Ethiopia have become dependent on donations from family in Israel and donors in the Unites States to survive.

Every Sunday, Zemene reads off a short list of those who been granted a flight to Jerusalem, and a second, longer list of those whose family members have sent them money to eat.

This enforced limbo recently drove relatives and activists to stage a large protest on the eve of Passover in Tel Aviv.

It has also raised some uncomfortable questions about what appears to be double standards.

Israeli officials invite Jews from Europe, North America and Russia to immigrate to Israel, says Zemene.

But in Ethiopia, where many are devout Jews, more than 8,500 haven’t been offered a preliminary interview, he says

 “Our question is why? Sometimes they are saying we are not Jews. But they haven’t even interviewed people before they say it,” he says.

“Most of these people have got family in Israel. Now they are waiting here, displaced, with problems of money.”

A group of young Jews, visiting Gonder from Israel and the US, found themselves pondering the same questions.

Adam Baldachin, a 23-year-old New Yorker who hopes to become a rabbi, says he finds more commonalities than conflicts with the Jews in Ethiopia.

 “Their relatives have been brought over, and these people think of Israel as home,” he says. “The Israeli government needs to take action.”

Ronit Sela, a 31-year-old journalist from Jerusalem, came to Gonder from a volunteer placement with an AIDS and HIV orphanage in Addis Ababa.

 “There’s a big controversy at home over whether these people are Jewish or whether they’re not,” she says.

There is likely a reason many of those remaining in Ethiopia haven’t been allowed in, she says.

Looking around at the men’s and women’s faces, tattooed with blurry crosses on their temples, chins and between their eyes, one gets the sense she has a point.

But then one walks the streets of Gonder and notices the synergies between Christianity, Judaism and Islam here. Churches have muezzins, like mosques, and are round, like both synagogues and mosques.

People of all faiths pray to walls here, unlike our Western understanding of the religious divides.

Some in Israel, unfortunately, still have a dim view towards Africans.

“That definitely does play a part, but it is also being from a developing country,” says Sela. “But if they were from a poor country, like Vietnam, they wouldn’t get treated any better.”

That’s thanks to Zionists and ultra-Orthodox Jews who wield considerable influence, she says.

Few will say the Beta-Israel has been easy for Israel to absorb. In 1999, a study found that of 70,000 who had immigrated at the time, two-thirds could not converse in Hebrew.

Israel has struggled to combat this.

At the current rate, it will take just less than six years for the remaining Ethiopian Jews to be allowed into Israel.

Some, like Zemene, think it’s too long.

Others consider it responsible immigration.

Getnet Awoke is one who sides with opening the country up.

Originally from Gonder, he was denied entry by Israel, only to keep trying until he succeeded in 1996.

He now works helping new immigrants to integrate into Israel — thus his visit to the Gonder synagogue during Passover.

 “I hope God will open the gates and let them in,” he says. “These people do not want to come to Israel because of the economy; they want to come … because their families have dreamt for centuries to come to Jerusalem.”

It made me reflect back to a conversation I had with Amid, another Israeli I met in Ethiopia who openly made fun of religion.

 “They haven’t been a success,” he said of the Beta-Israel. “But who am I to say? They’re better Jews than me.”

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Ethiopia.

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