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Israel Says There Are No More Jews in Ethiopia. Thousands Left Behind Disagree.

As final flights of Falash Mura leave for Israel, a community of Hebrew-speakers finds it is neither Jewish nor Ethiopian enough

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A man writes on the wall of the Beta Israel Community Primary School. (David Abraham Michael)
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The Falash Mura present a uniquely difficult case for the Israeli government’s aliyah programs. Hundreds of families left their villages two decades ago to pursue a single ambition—a future in Israel—after the Israeli government airlifted 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in a dramatic 36-hour operation in 1991. The Falash Mura have lived in Gondar since then in conditions not far removed from a transit camp, waiting for visas.

Tali Aronsky, spokesperson for the Jewish Agency, said there is talk of supporting the community going forward, but ultimately the organization’s official assignment in Gondar is now over. “We are not assigned to be there to ensure the longevity of the community,” Aronsky told me. “In terms of providing a local rabbi and kosher meat, that’s not what we were brought in to do in Gondar.” The Jewish Agency has, however, decided to keep Gondar’s synagogue open for services throughout the upcoming Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Elad Sonn, a spokesman for the minster for immigrant absorption, said that going forward, the welfare of the Falash Mura in Gondar falls on the shoulders of the Ethiopian government. “We are talking about sovereignty,” Sonn told me. “It is not Israeli sovereignty over there, in the same way that we can’t have different governments bearing responsibility for the welfare of people who are living here.”

As the congregation filed out of the synagogue, Workineh Atalay, a 16-year-old, wearing a navy cotton sweater and worn rubber sandals, angrily demanded an interview. The obvious consequence of losing the synagogue, he said urgently, is the loss of Gondar’s Jewish community. “There will be no Jews living here if there is no synagogue,” he said. “When there are no more Jews living and praying together, Shabbat is nonsense. God says be with each other and I will be with you—there is no meaning in Shabbat when we are not all together.”

We talked by the gate inside the synagogue, the only one in Gondar, where there is a clear Christian majority. There are more than 50 churches in and around the city, 10 of which are located in the city center, near the synagogue. “The synagogue is where all the Jews of Gondar are together,” Atalay repeated, as congregants dispersed. “If there is no synagogue, the people will never come together, and they will change their religion to Christianity or Islam.”

No one I spoke with, not even the Jewish Agency staff overseeing the final wave of aliyah, disagreed. “The question is whether we should hope that they will keep it,” said Tsofia Fuichtwanger, the aliyah and educational coordinator for the Jewish Agency in Gondar. “If the Israeli government doesn’t see them as truly Jewish, then they can’t go to Israel. They are rejected because they are Christians. I hope for them that they will stay here and have a good life here, and I don’t think the good way to be a part of this society in Gondar is to be Jewish.”

But for many of Gondar’s Falash Mura, it’s too late. Jewish timetables regulate the pulse of each day. The week is punctuated by the Shabbat break. The comfort of their Jewish identity and the concomitant promise of Israel has defined their very existence. Fuichtwanger summed up the sad irony of denying many of Gondar’s Falash Mura the chance to join the families making aliyah: “They are more Jewish than many people their age in Israel.”

And they are treated as Jews by their fellow Ethiopians. They report having been denied housing and work because of their Jewish affiliation. Falash Mura students at non-Jewish public schools are bullied for being Jewish—and, in some cases, even for being cast aside by the Israeli government. “I am neither Jewish nor Ethiopian,” said Atalay, the teenager I met at the Shabbat service. “They will always say that I was rejected. This is a big shame for me.”

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The Last Days of Gondar

Photographs by David Abraham Michael