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Bring Addis, Gondar communities to Israel

Bring Addis, Gondar communities to Israel - opinion

Israel does not have the right to impose its religiously and historically unjustifiable restrictive views on who is considered a Jew outside of its borders.

Does the government of Israel have the right to determine who is a Jew in the Diaspora?

The question seems ridiculous. Of course it doesn’t. Israel does have the legal right as a sovereign nation to determine who is eligible for Aliyah under the Law of Return; that is a domestic law. But it does not have the right to decide for Diaspora Jewry.

In fact, the criteria of the Law of Return and of Halakha differ. Under the Law of Return, non-Jews are permitted to make Aliyah if they have one Jewish grandparent. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have done so. What is less known is that tens of thousands of people who are halachicly Jewish are not allowed to make Aliyah under the Law of Return.

This has been the policy since the Supreme Court decided the case of Ruifhausen in 1960. A man born to Jewish parents became a monk to escape Nazi persecution and subsequently sought to make Aliyah under the Law of Return while remaining a Christian because he was halachicly Jewish even though he had converted. (“A Jew even though he has sinned remains a Jew,” Sanhedrin 44a.) The court said the term “Jew” in the Law of Return did not apply to a practicing Christian; the term had to be given its secular, not halakhic, meaning.

To many Diaspora Jews, it seems wrong to apply this rationale – subsequently codified – to the maternally linked Falash Mura who, unlike Ruifhausen, have returned to Judaism in Ethiopia and eagerly undergo conversion under the Chief Rabbinate’s auspices when permitted to make Aliyah on other grounds. It contravenes Jewish practice for over 2,000 years and severely damages the raison d’etre of Israel as the homeland of all Jews.

But most of Diaspora Jewry understands that the Law of Return and immigration policy generally are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the State of Israel. But that does not give Israel the right to impose its religiously and historically unjustifiable restrictive views outside of Israel.

Yet this is exactly what the state seems to be trying to do in Ethiopia, where 14,000 Beta Israel have been abandoned by the state, at least 6,000 of whom (i) are maternally linked to the Jewish people (and thus halachicly Jewish) and (ii) have returned to the practice of Judaism.

The Aliyah and Integration Ministry proposes in its five-year plan that after Israel decides who will be permitted to make Aliyah, the government should attempt to close down the compounds in Addis and Gondar which contain the communities’ synagogues, yeshivot, mikvaot and batei midrash (and also serve as centers for educational and humanitarian aid).

A former government minister has suggested that after the government brings to Israel the chosen group, tractors should be brought to the compounds in Addis and Gondar “to destroy them down to their foundations.” Was this Orthodox rabbi unconsciously paraphrasing the Edomites curse of Jerusalem in Psalms 137?

The proposed actions are reminiscent of dark times for the Jewish people when synagogues and Jewish institutions were destroyed by non-Jewish governments. Who would have thought it may be attempted by the Jewish State of Israel?

Who would have thought the state would try to determine who could practice as a Jew in the Diaspora?

The Aliyah and Integration Ministry published this plan without consulting the Addis and Gondar communities, which are registered as Jewish with the Ethiopian government. Nor has any Israeli government official discussed this plan with SSEJ, which operates the compounds (and is registered as an NGO with the Ethiopian government).

If the Israeli government adopts this plan, it is deciding for world Jewry who is a Jew in the Diaspora, widening the growing breach between American Jewry and the State of Israel.

Nor is it likely that the high-ranking officials of the American government, whose support Israel seeks and who support SSEJ’s efforts, will be pleased. When an attempt was made to close the compound, then operated by NACOEJ, in 2008 (with the support of the Israeli government), many high-ranking members of Congress, many still serving, successfully intervened with the Ethiopian government. What explanation will the Israeli government offer at a time when it is trying to mend its relationship with the Democratic Party?

Obviously, Israel does not have the right to encourage the closure of synagogues and yeshivot in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the Diaspora. But why should the state care if the Addis and Gondar Jewish communities continue to exist after the state has selected the last Jew it is willing to accept?

It is not, God-forbid, antisemitism. It is the polar opposite; a healthy sense of Jewish shame (Yevamot 89a). The continuing existence of flourishing African Jewish communities denied Aliyah would be visible testimony to the failure of Zionist ideals. Much better if they simply disappeared.

Over the years, Israel has repeatedly permitted only a portion of the community to make aliyah, hoping the rest would vanish. But they haven’t and they won’t; many have already been waiting for over 20 years.

The only remedy for the Jewish embarrassment and domestic political discomfort of Israel’s politicians is to bring all members of the Addis and Gondar communities to Israel, finally reuniting families that have been cruelly separated for decades, something that can occur only if funded in the 2021/2022 budget.

The writer, chairman of SSEJ and a past president of NACOEJ, has received awards from the Knesset, the Jewish Agency and the Ethiopian Jewish community for three decades of advocacy on behalf of Ethiopian Jews.

Joseph Feit, July 19, 2021

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