Joseph J. Feit

7 false statements about the Jews remaining in Ethiopia

Given the afflictions of famine, locusts, COVID, and especially war besetting the Jewish community, the least I can do is set the record straight

The situation in Ethiopia is that the afflictions besetting the Jewish communities are multiple and biblical in nature: war, plague (COVID), famine, and locusts. In addition, the community has been affected by internal unrest in Gondar. The Jewish community, unlike other Gondar residents, has no place to go if Gondar is invaded or cut off, since their relatives are no longer in the villages, having made aliyah to Israel. Food costs have escalated dramatically. Grain which cost 35 birr one year ago now costs 64 birr. There is no reason on the horizon to expect mitigation of the situation in the near future. Funds from Israeli relatives have dried up as there is no way for them to be transferred to Ethiopia by messenger. The daily laborer jobs have all but completely disappeared, due to the economic dislocations caused by COVID. And it is impossible to predict the fortunes of war.

Given the dire predicament, knowing what is real and what is not is just that critical.

  1. They aren’t really Jews. Well, that will come as a surprise to the various chief rabbis, such as Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu, Ovadiah Yosef, and Shlomo Amar, who had contrary opinions, certainly with respect to those who are maternally linked to the Jewish people — thousands of whom remain in Ethiopia practicing halakhic Judaism.
  2. They aren’t in danger. So says Israel’s National Security Council in a “confidential” memo that was immediately leaked, the day it was written. No one can predict the course of the war, but as a result of the war and related civil disturbances, 11 Jews have already died, including a 6-year-old boy who was shot and killed close to the synagogue a few weeks ago. The Ethiopian government just increased the draft quota to two per family. Many members of the Jewish community have been drafted and sent to the front.
  3. Since the Tigrayan forces are not poised to immediately conquer Gondar and Addis, there is no need for an emergency operation to free them. Even if this were true, the logic is extraordinarily poor. Does Israel’s National Security Council believe that it is reasonable to wait until Tigrayan forces are knocking on the door to start evacuations that can be expected to take substantial time? Most of the 14,100-person community is in Gondar, and would have to be transported to Addis Ababa to be evacuated. Waiting until the roads are closed is madness.
  4. Israel’s reserve funds cannot be used to increase the number of immigrants through the end of 2022 because there is no emergency. See answer 3, above. Anyone who thinks there is no emergency is not reading the New York Times or the Washington Post, and is ignoring the actions of Israel itself, which is evacuating personnel, as is the United States government.
  5. The “camps are always emptied and then fill up again.” Aside from the fact that this is reminiscent of the racist Ripley trope of the endlessly marching Chinese, the statement is also false or immoral on many levels. First, it assumes that the number of Ethiopian Jews allowed to come to Israel should be limited. This is not said of Jews from any other country in the world and people should be ashamed to make this argument. Shouldn’t an increase in olim to Israel be celebrated, rather than feared? Second, the camps have never been “emptied.” The Israeli government always leaves thousands behind who reconstitute the community. Third, there are no “camps.” No one lives in the community compound, which consists of a synagogue and a few classrooms. Is there an objection to prayer and Jewish study? No one makes aliyah from the so-called camps. They live in their own homes and in their own Jewish communities. The only difference is that unlike Jews in the rest of the world, they cannot make applications directly; their relatives in Israel must do so for them.
  6. The fact that their parents or grandparents may actually or nominally converted absolves us of responsibility for their well-being. This is true only if one ignores the facts and 2,000 years of rabbinic tradition and Jewish precedent. The communities have returned to the practice of normative Judaism and in accordance with the talmudic dictum: “An Israelite even though he has sinned remains a Jew.” Over 98 percent of them undergo conversion under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, to remove any doubt, and 75% of them send their children to religious schools in Israel, including Haredi schools.
  7. Those who are paternally linked certainly have no claim on us. This ignores the fact that HaRav Itzhak HaLevi Herzog, the State of Israel’s first chief rabbi, and grandfather of Israel’s current President Isaac Herzog, held that the descendants of Mashhadi Jews who had converted to Islam in 1839 should be brought to Israel and converted, even though they were only paternally linked to the Jewish people. It ignores the fact that under the traditions of Ethiopian Jewry, it is the paternal side the counts. And if this argument were valid, why is the State of Israel in fact bringing only paternally linked Jews at present, completely ignoring the 5,400 maternally linked Jews who came to Gondar since 2010.

There are many more falsehoods prevalent about the community. What is clear is that if Israel does not take immediate steps to evacuate all 14,100 Jews, it will bear at least partial responsibility for any deaths that occur. And national JFNA, if it does not respond to emails sent weeks ago begging for help in the light of the emergency situation, will be replicating the sins of the American Jewish community in the far, far darker years before World War II, when it placidly allowed the Saint Louis to sail back to Europe.

About the Author
Joseph Feit, an attorney, is currently chairman of SSEJ and a past president of NACOEJ. He is a past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and has been active on issues relating to Ethiopian Jewry for three decades. Feit has received awards from the Knesset, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar for his work on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
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