By: Stacy Larson
Pace International Law Review, Junior Associate
In the 1980s and 90s, tens of thousands of Falash Mura were airlifted to Israel after the Chief Rabbinate ruled they were historically Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. The Falash Mura are members of an impoverished Jewish congregation who claim to be direct descendants of Ethiopia’s King Menelik I, who is believed to have been the son of Israel’s King Solomon. Israel is currently home to more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews.
There are at least 8000 members of Falash Mura, who reside in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, the city of Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia, and in villages who say they are also eligible for Israeli citizenship. The Falash Mura abandoned their homes many years ago (in other parts of Ethiopia) in the hope of qualifying to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish state’s 1950 Law of Return, which grants any person with at least one Jewish grandparent the right to Israeli citizenship. Now, the congregation says that the Israeli government is turning a deaf ear to their immigration requests despite many attempts to begin the immigration process at the Israeli embassy.
The situation is one of humanitarian concern. The conditions in Addis Ababa are reportedly deplorable. The synagogue is a plastic tent with a dirt floor behind a wall in a busy Addis Ababa neighborhood. The community is akin to a refugee camp without running water or toilet facilities; it is overcrowded, and there is open sewage. Diets are lacking in fruit, vegetables and dairy. In fact, many are dying of tuberculosis, hepatitis, measles, and malnutrition. Additionally, the members Falash Mura are often the subject of harsh treatment by Christian locals.
Public opinion in Israel is divided between those who favor allowing the Falash Mura to immigrate, either because they were Jews by ancestry, or for humanitarian reasons, and others who argue they are simply claiming to be Jewish to escape Ethiopia’s poverty. Representatives of the Falash Mura say they have been left to rot in Ethiopia because the Israeli government does not view them as real Jews. While lists of families from Gondar, Addis Ababa, and the villages were given to the Israeli government in 2003, many were denied immigration permits. Others, whose requests have not yet been denied, have been in a transitory state waiting for relief for years without any meaningful explanation as to why it has taken so long to process their requests.
In early March 2010, The Jerusalem Post quoted Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying he would soon send a team to check the eligibility of 8700 Falash Mura Jews. The report said members of Israel’s Ethiopian community had “voiced cynicism” at his promises. The newspaper also quoted one lawmaker, Shlomo Molla, as stating, “it seems there is a clear policy not to bring more Jews from Ethiopia, and no one is willing to explain why.”