Israelis ponder whether 3,000 Ethiopians left behind really are Jews


JERUSALEM -- Less than two weeks after the lightning airlift of Ethiopian Jews moved Israelis to national celebration, this country is grappling with a new twist in the debate that could determine the fate of several thousand Ethiopians left behind.

The question: Are they real Jews?

When the last Israeli aircraft in "Operation Solomon" took off from Addis Ababa as Ethiopian rebels converged on the capital, 169 Ethiopian Jews were left behind because they missed the plane. An additional 3,000 didn't make it because they were Christian converts who claim Jewish origin.

Israel essentially accepts for citizenship anyone who is Jewish. Now, Israelis are asking whether these 3,000 should be recognized as Jews for immigration purposes and, if so, by what criteria. Should religion matter in determining which of them may come to live in Israel?

Earlier this week, Simcha Dinitz, head of the Jewish Agency, which manages immigration, suggested that the government would decide the question along humanitarian rather than theological grounds.

Opening immigration to every group, he said, would not work because it would "have no end," Mr. Dinitz said. But he suggested that Israel might make a special case on humanitarian grounds to rescue the Ethiopians of doubtful Jewish origin. Israel, he said, could "relieve the agony of people who are already here by bringing their relatives of the first degree -- regardless of their religion."

Israelis appear eager to embrace the 14,200 Ethiopian Jews transplanted during the 24 hours of Operation Solomon. In a poll published yesterday, 82 percent of Israelis said they were willing to accept a lower standard of living to help absorb the new immigrants.

But Operation Solomon's immigrants -- who joined 23,000 Ethiopian Jews brought here in 1984 -- were believed to be the last traces of Ethiopian Jewry, sometimes referred to as Falashas. The 3,000 converts in Addis Ababa belong to a group estimated at 15,000 to 50,000.

Given the political instability and difficulty of life today in Ethiopia, some Israelis fear that they could end up absorbing and supporting thousands of essentially economic refugees who have no connection to Judaism.

"The situation is so bad in Ethiopia that we are getting reports that everybody is now finding they have some Jewish blood," said Gad Ben-Ari, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency.

Complicating the matter, Jewish religious law does not normally recognize conversions to Christianity. Any child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. According to Judaic law, for example, Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris who converted to Roman Catholicism at 14, could be buried in a Jewish cemetery when he dies.

But Chaim Rosen, an anthropologist working for the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, said that many of the converts have been practicing Christianity for generations, effectively erasing any trace of Judaism from their lives. How Jewish are they today? he asks.

Few here believe that the Jews of Ethiopia were forced to convert to Christianity. Mr. Rosen said most who converted probably did so to join the prevailing culture rather than in response to any physical threat.

Mr. Ben-Ari spoke of the negotiations to win the Ethiopians' freedom, which perplexed Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia's former leader. Mr. Mengistu leaned across his desk at one point and told the Israeli negotiator, "I don't mind letting them go, but I'm not sure exactly who you want. If you go back far enough, I could be a Falasha."

Chief rabbis of Israel's Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities also differ on what to do. The Sephardic chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu, said converts should be brought over, while his Ashkenazi counterpart, Avraham Shapiro, ruled they should be brought only if they wish to return to Judaism.

Some voices are also suggesting that it may be time to change Israel's cornerstone Law of Return, by which Jews anywhere in the world may become instant citizens here.

The law was written in 1948 and defines a Jew according to Nazi Germany's infamous Nuremberg racial laws: anyone with one Jewish grandparent. The framers reasoned that anyone Jewish enough for Hitler's gas chambers was Jewish enough to be saved, noted Ze'ev Chafets, a newspaper columnist.

"The truth is that the Law of Return, which made sense in the generation after World War II, no longer does," he wrote.

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