Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Visitors are a rare sight for Setegn Mantegbosh. To reach her home, a mud hut off a main road in the eastern part of Ethiopia’s capital, you walk down a dirt path in a warren of mud structures, go left, right, then left again. Watch your step: a rare rainstorm in the country’s dry season has turned the trail into muck.
This morning, some Western visitors come.
They listen, through an interpreter, as Mantegbosh, 22, thin with closely cropped hair, stands at the door of her home, holding her 2-year-old son, Sintaya, patiently answering questions about her life. She tells how she and her husband and the couple’s first child left their farm in Dembia, part of Ethiopia’s northern Gondar region, five years ago, took a bus to Addis, as the natives call it, applied at the Israeli Embassy for a visa to emigrate to Israel, and have stayed here. Waiting.
"Because all my relatives live in Israel," she says.
Mantegbosh’s family is part of the group known as Falash Mura (Amharic for a secret or hidden Jew), Ethiopians with Jewish roots whose relatives converted to Christianity a century ago. Although most continued to maintain their ethnic identity as Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews’ name for themselves, and although they continued to marry within Beta Israel circles and keep some Jewish traditions, the chance of intermarriage over the years leaves the current Falash Mura’s status as Jews open to question.
About 20,000 Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, left behind when all the Ethiopian Jews whom Israel recognizes as Jews made aliyah by the 1980s and 1990s.
Israel, with the Orthodox-controlled Interior Ministry deciding who is eligible to enter the country, has applied exacting standards to the visa applications of Falash Mura, admitting about 2,200 a year since the Operation Solomon airlift in 1991.
Since then, Israeli governments have convened committees to investigate the status of Falash Mura and sent official delegations to Ethiopia for a firsthand look.
These officials have spoken encouragingly about what may be the last, large-scale return of a historic Lost Tribe.
Until recent years, until activists in the United States and Israel raised the issue’s visibility, the Falash Mura were little known. Now, Jewish missions from the U.S. regularly visit Ethiopia. Now, UJA-Federation of New York provides a grant to help feed the Falash Mura, and such synagogues as Manhattan’s West End Synagogue support educational programs for them.
Now, following lobbying by Israel’s religious leaders (many Orthodox authorities are more convinced that the Falash Mura are authentically Jewish than are secular politicians), Supreme Court lawsuits by Jerusalem attorney Michael Corinaldi (he wants the government to use the same immigration standards it uses for newcomers from the former Soviet Union, who include a large percentage of non-Jewish relatives) and public demonstrations by Ethiopian Jews (every Falash Mura claims to have kin in Israel), there are signs that the waiting days in Ethiopia may end soon.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai said recently that he would ask the government to expedite the emigration of Falash Mura who can show a Jewish connection on their mother’s side. This, according to the Law of Return, would affect at least several thousand members of the community who would become immediate citizens, while those related to Jews on their father’s side may be eligible to settle in Israel under a separate, family reunification law.
Meanwhile, six weeks after Ethiopia halted direct flights to Tel Aviv because of Israeli concerns over Ethiopian Airlines’ security procedures, limited Falash Mura emigration resumed last month: 21 Ethiopian olim arrived on board an El Al flight via Nairobi, Kenya.
Sense Of Urgency
The need for wider emigration, advocates say, is urgent. Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest nations, which suffered a crippling famine in 1984, now faces another one after a poor harvest season. And the Falash Mura are among Ethiopia’s poorest citizens.
Most, about 13,000, still live in villages in Gondar or around the region’s capital. The rest, like the Mantegboshes, left their villages up north in 1997-98, when Israel indicated it would admit a limited number of Falash Mura who had come to Addis Ababa. They left behind their homes and agricultural lives.
"This move transformed the group from a self-sufficient agrarian community into a dependent population of urban slum dwellers," a 2002 report by the Amerian Jewish Joint Distribution Committee said.
In Addis Ababa, within walking distance of a medical clinic run by the JDC and a fenced-in compound where the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry provide daily meals and classes on basic Judaism (both New York-based organizations also have similar programs in Gondar) the Falash Mura live, usually four or more in a family, in rented mud huts the size of an average American bedroom.
"In Addis the people are living in very difficult conditions," says Avraham Neguise, an Ethiopian who emigrated to Israel and founded the South Wing to Zion advocacy group. "They are depressed. They are frustrated."
Most, unemployed, depend on the Joint and NACOEJ for food. Some, like other Ethiopians, beg on the streets.
Mantegbosh is one of the lucky ones.
In her hut, covered by a corrugated tin roof and lit by a single light bulb, Mantegbosh prepares simple bean-and-flour meals for her family on a charcoal stove.
Like many members of the Falash Mura community, she is vague about her family’s religious background.
Tsehai Derso, 30, who brought his wife and five children here five years ago and lives in a hut near Mantegbosh’s, explains enigmatically, "We followed the customs of our ancestors."
No one, it seems, comes from a family that had lived as Christians. Which is why experts disagree on the Falash Mura’s religious status.
"To the best of my knowledge the Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia have done little to establish their identity as Jews," the late Graenum Berger, a longtime activist for the Ethiopian Jews, wrote in 1998. "They were Christians in religious practice and there had been times over the past century when they had tried to convert bona fide Ethiopian Jews to Christianity, without much success. Despite the political rhetoric of their families, [they] are not legitimate Jews nor do they have any legitimate basis for migration."
But Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi and a respected religious leader, says the Falash Mura, who were forced to convert because of social and economic pressures, should be allowed to come to Israel as authentic Jews. He expressed that opinion to Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir in 1991, citing the Talmudic adage that "A Jew, although he sins, is still a Jew."
Rabbi Yosef, whose 1973 ruling that Ethiopian Jews "are without doubt of the Tribe of Dan" was seen as the first step to their welcome in Israel, recently issued a similar statement on behalf of the Falash Mura following a fact-finding trip to Ethiopia by a trusted aide.
Racism At Work?
Is racism behind Israel’s slow acceptance of the Falash Mura?
"I don’t like to use the word racism," Neguise says.
He points out that Ethiopian Jews, small in number, only 85,000, come to Israel with few marketable skills.
"The politicians are not very interested" in the Falash Mura cause, Neguise says, "because we are not white, we are not educated, we are not rich. They prefer to see white engineers rather than poor blacks."
The office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which makes the ultimate decisions about the Falash Mura’s fate, did not answer an e-mail request from The Jewish Week for his comments on the issue.
Skeptics say Ethiopians with no Jewish connections are eager to claim Jewish roots in order to escape their homeland’s poverty.
Of the 20,000 Falash Mura, how many want to go to Israel, a visitor asks Dr. Rick Hodes, the JDC’s medical director here.
"Sixty-five million," he answers, referring to Ethiopia’s entire population.
Supporters say the Falash Mura’s renewed interest in Judaism was inspired by the Ethiopian Jews’ successful integration in Israel.
"This is a generation that wants to return to its roots," Neguise says. "They see that their parents’ way" (affiliating as Christians) "was not the right way."
Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who directs an educational program in Israel for the Falash Mura designed by the Chief Rabbinate, says he has no doubts about their sincerity. Many have adopted a Jewish lifestyle before they leave their Gondar villages, and nearly all eventually undergo a conversion to Judaism in Israel, he says.
"Seventy-five percent of the conversions in Israel are Ethiopians," Rabbi Waldman says.
Neguise says the entire Falash Mura community will end up in Israel. "The question is, in what shape will these people be when they come to Israel?" he asks.
"In some months all the Jews in Addis and Gondar will be here," says attorney Corinaldi, who plans to file another lawsuit for the Falash Mura in March.
Setegn Mantegbosh, who spends her days in a hut that lacks running water, says she has no timetable.
But she has faith.
She will come to Israel, she says, "when God gives permission."
Steve Lipman’s visit to Ethiopia was supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
"Children of the Lost Tribes of Dan: Portraits of Ethiopian Jewry by Win Robins," a photo exhibit about the Falash Mura, is on display through Aug. 3 at the Center for Jewish History, Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan. Hours are Sundays to Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call (212) 294-8335.