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They Speak Hebrew And Keep Kosher: The Left-Behind Ethiopian Jews

Apr 16, 2015
Originally published on May 3, 2015 8:27 pm

In the half darkness of an adobe hut in Gondar, Ethiopia, 20-year-old Gezahegn ("Gezi") Derebe pulls out an acoustic guitar. As on many evenings when the power goes out, he entertains his family by singing. Though his mother, Ayelesh, sways to the tune, she doesn't understand the lyrics, because Gezi sings not in his native Amharic, but in Hebrew.

Behind him, on a wall kept cool with a traditional mixture of cow dung and ash, hangs a laminated map of Israel. Above it are the framed photographs of his relatives who have already managed to emigrate there.

Gezi would like to join them.

For years, it seemed like only a matter of time. In 2003, when Gezi was 8 years old, his family sold its land and livestock and moved to Gondar, a hub for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Gezi enrolled in a school run by the Jewish Agency for Israel and staffed by Israeli volunteer teachers, with a curriculum designed to prepare young emigrants for their future life.

Gezi learned Hebrew, and Israeli history, and Jewish studies. His former teacher, Naama Avitsur, told me that Gezi was not only the brightest Hebrew student in the class but also the most grateful. He was "so thankful for everything," Avitsur says. "He really cares about his Judaism."

Gezi's Jewish education, unique in a country known for anti-Semitism, strengthened his sense of his own identity and his belief that one day he would live in Israel.

But the same organization that had granted him this education then informed him he would not qualify to go Israel, because he wasn't Jewish enough. The reason? One of his ancestors, on the maternal side, was Christian. According to traditional Jewish law, he's not technically Jewish.

But Gezi has reason to think that what's holding him back is not centuries-old rabbinical law but rather the more mercurial dictates of politics. If it were merely a question of biology, why would one side of the family have been allowed and the other not?

More than 1,000 miles away in a high-rise apartment outside Tel Aviv, the walls hung with school running medals, Gezi's uncle, Tachelo, and his cousin Habtu sit on a couch and explain that they got lucky.

"The first immigrations were easier," Habtu says. "Whoever wanted to come, came. Now there are many procedures to go through."

Disqualified Under A Stricter Law

For Jews around the world, having one Christian ancestor would not disqualify them from becoming an Israeli citizen. Israel's founding Law of Return decrees that a person can immigrate to Israel if he or she has one Jewish grandparent, on either side. Gezi has that.

But Gezi and his family are a special case, because they're descended from a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity under pressure in the 19th century. They're called the Falash Mura. They secretly practiced Judaism but were not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a hard-won political compromise a decade ago.

Even then, Israel didn't approve them under the standard Law of Return but under a stricter religious law that says to be Jewish you need to prove an "unbroken" maternal Jewish line. It is under this stricter law that Gezi's Christian great-grandmother disqualifies him.

Avraham Negusie, the only Ethiopian-born member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, agrees that it was easier for the Falash Mura to immigrate in 2003. And while there was no official change in policy in the years since then, the embassy staff in Addis Ababa appeared to want to pinch the pipeline.

While previous interviews had stopped at four generations, says Negusie — who was elected just last month — Israeli officials now required the Falash Mura to count back seven generations, "to see whether they have, in the middle, any non-Jews in that lineage."

He says in a place like Ethiopia, where written documents are rare and there's a history of anti-Semitism, it can be difficult to prove the Jewishness of your great-great-great-great-grandmother.

Finally, in 2013, Israel declared with great fanfare an official end to the program that had helped tens of thousands of Jewish Ethiopians become citizens of Israel. There would be no more airlifts, though people could apply on a case-by-case basis. The Jewish school was closed.

How To Draw The Line

Negusie says that there are 6,000 people left behind in Ethiopia who are Jewish on their father's side; 80 percent of them have children, parents or siblings in Israel.

"These people should be brought and reunited with their family," says Negusie. "This is what we're asking."

The question is where to draw the line, says Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

"Any person has family members, who in turn have other family members, who in turn have more family members," Palmor says. "If you don't put an end to it, then all the Ethiopian population could see themselves as entitled to immigrate automatically to Israel."

Still he agreed that a case like Gezi was "interesting." Gezi speaks Hebrew, keeps kosher, and as a result of the free Jewish education that he was provided by the Jewish Agency, thinks of himself as a Jew. Palmor says cases like Gezi would be "a very curious side effect of this operation ... to set up the school and provide an education according to Israeli standards."

Israel's Ministry of Interior is in charge of approving or denying applications. It has a special committee looking into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families, though activists say that committee has been in existence more than a year without accepting or rejecting a single case.

Back in Gondar, Gezi tells me his life "is like a bridge." He can't go back to the village where his family came from because it sold its land. Most of his former classmates are in Israel. Cousin Habtu just got married.

Before I leave him, I ask him to play a song in his native tongue, Amharic. He looks contrite. His teachers never taught him Amharic songs, he confesses. Only Hebrew ones.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Almost two years ago, with great fanfare, Israel ended a program that brought tens of thousands of Jewish Ethiopians to Israel to become citizens. Thousands of those families say the final airlift left their siblings and parents behind. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner went to Ethiopia to investigate.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I met Gezi Derebe in the one-room adobe hut that he shares with his mother and brother. As on many evenings when the power goes out, he pulls an acoustic guitar off a shelf.

This is a real guitar, like a...

GEZI DEREBE: Somebody brought for me.

WARNER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

WARNER: Though he's never been outside of Ethiopia, he sings to his family, not in his native Amharic but in Hebrew, an Israeli folk song.

DEREBE: (Singing in Hebrew).

WARNER: He sings, he says, to imagine that they're in Jerusalem. Behind him, on a wall kept cool by a mixture of cow dung and ash, is a laminated map of Israel. Above that are framed photos of his relatives already in Israel. And over his head is a question - will he ever get there himself?

DEREBE: (Singing in Hebrew).

WARNER: The story of Gezi's journey begins about 12 years ago when he was 8 years old and Gezi's family sold their farm and came to the city to join the waves of Ethiopian Jews being airlifted to Israel. He'd never seen a Torah scroll or been to a synagogue. They didn't have those in his village. But in Gondar, he enrolled in a school meant to prepare new immigrants to Israel run by the Jewish Agency for Israel and staffed by Israeli volunteers.

NAAMA AVITSUR: When he was in my class, he was brilliant.

WARNER: Naama Avitsur tells me he was not only her best student, fluent in Hebrew, but also her most grateful.

AVITSUR: So thankful for everything. He really cared about his Judaism.

WARNER: This Jewish education he received, that was unique in Ethiopia, strengthened his sense of his own Judaism. But then when he was a teenager, the same organization that had given him this education, informed him he would not qualify to go to Israel because he was not Jewish enough. One of his ancestors on the maternal side was Christian.

DEREBE: My grandmother's mother.

WARNER: Your grandmother's mother was not Jewish?

DEREBE: Yeah, only she.

WARNER: This at first seems peculiar because Israel has had a law since its founding that the most you have to prove to emigrate is that you have one Jewish grandparent - just one on either side. And Gezi would qualify. But Gezi is a very special case because he's part of a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted under pressure to Christianity in the 19th century. The Falash Mura secretly practiced Judaism, but they were not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a political compromise a decade ago. And even then, Israel did not approve them under the standard Law of Return, the rule that you have one Jewish grandparent. But under stricter religious law that says to be Jewish, you need an unbroken maternal Jewish line, Gezi's Christian great-grandmother disqualifies him.

DEREBE: Because of this we can't go there. We can't go to Israel.

WARNER: But Gezi has reason to think that what's holding him back is not centuries-old rabbinical law but rather the more mercurial dictates of politics. And to understand why he thinks that, we need to actually leave Ethiopia for a little bit and, with the help of NPR's Jerusalem bureau, go to a living room outside of Tel Aviv.

HABTU ABATA: (Speaking Hebrew).

WARNER: This is Habtu Abata. He's Gezi's cousin, and he's sitting on the couch in his apartment in Israel next to his father, his father whose twin sister is Gezi's mother. So according to biology, if Gezi is not Jewish enough to come to Israel, neither are they. So why were they allowed in 2003?

ABATA: (Through interpreter) The first immigrations were easier because at that time whoever wanted to come just came. Now there are many procedures to go through.

WARNER: Habtu's family thought they would come first, set things up and the rest of the family would follow. But by the time that Gezi and his brother and his mother applied, the mood toward Ethiopian immigrants in Israel had soured. Israel's economy was slowing. Ethiopian Jews, it seemed, required more welfare and social services than immigrants from other places.

Avraham Negusie is the only Ethiopian-born member of the Knesset, just elected last month. He says there was no official change in policy, but embassy staff in Addis Ababa seemed to start making it harder to pass the interview, making people go back five, six, seven generations.

AVRAHAM NEGUSIE: They go back to seven generations. They ask them to count seven generations in order to see whether they have, in the middle, non-Jews in that lineage.

WARNER: And he says in a place like Ethiopia, where there are few written documents and a history of anti-Semitism, it's difficult to prove sometimes the Jewish-ness of your great-great-great-great grandmother. He says that as Israel seemed to pinch the immigration pipeline, families were split. Community leaders say that there are 6,000 people in Ethiopia, like Gezi, who are Jewish on their father's side. Eighty percent of them, they say, have children or parents or siblings in Israel.

NEGUSIE: These people should be brought and reunited with their families. This is what we are asking.

WARNER: Yigal Palmor is a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the main organization in charge of coordinating Jewish immigration.

YIGAL PALMOR: The question is, where do you draw the line? Because any person has family members who in turn have other family members who in turn have yet more family members, then all of the Ethiopian population could see themselves as entitled to immigrate automatically to Israel.

WARNER: Officially, there are no more airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, though you can apply on a case-by-case basis. I asked Palmor about cases like Gezi, who speaks Hebrew, keeps kosher and as a result of the free Jewish education that he was provided by Palmor's agency, the Jewish Agency, thinks of himself as a Jew.

PALMOR: Yes, that's a very interesting case. That would be a very curious side effect of this operation.

WARNER: He says the Jewish Agency only assists with immigration. It doesn't decide any particular case. The Ministry of Interior, which does decide, has a committee that's looking into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families, although activists say that committee has been in existence more than a year without accepting or rejecting a single case.

Back in Gondar, the Jewish school that Gezi used to go to is closed. Most of his former classmates are in Israel. His cousin, Habtu, just got married. And Gezi feels like he's in limbo. His mother would like to give up on the Jerusalem dream and just go back to their village, but their farm is sold.

DEREBE: We don't have anything there. We sold everything. We all live here like - how to express? - it is bridge.

WARNER: It's a bridge?

DEREBE: Yeah, it's a bridge here.

WARNER: Before I leave the hut, I asked him to play one song in his native tongue, in Amharic, and he looked contrite. His teachers never taught him Amharic songs, he says, only Hebrew ones. Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.