October 14, 1996
Background: The Falash Mura are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodox Church). These people, who reside in Gondar and other communities in the northern part of the country, were not accepted by the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) or the Ethiopian Christians. Although there are no definitive figures, estimates are that between 20-25,000 Falash Mura live in Ethiopia.
In 1991, when over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel on Operation Solomon, a decision was made not to allow the Falash Mura to immigrate to Israel, since they did not qualify as Jews under the Law of Return. However, on humanitarian grounds, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) were commissioned to set up and run a compound for those Falash Mura who came to Addis Ababa hoping to emigrate to Israel. Approximately 3000 individuals are currently residing near the compound which contains a school for 1100 children (with Jewish and Hebrew studies) and an active synagogue. General living conditions in Addis Ababa are extremely difficult.
The Jewishness of the group in the compound has been the subject of much discussion over the years. The Israeli chief rabbinate appointed a special committee to explore this question. While the committee recommended recognition of the Falash Mura near the compound as Jews, the chief rabbinate to date has not acted on this recommendation. The-official position of the Israeli government remains that the Falash Mura, as converts to Christianity, are not entitled to come to Israel under the Law of Return.
Two high-level commissions were established to address the Falash Mura issue, one by Prime Minister Shamir, and another by Prime Minister Rabin subsequent to the 1992 election. Both commissions agreed that, even if the Law of Return does not apply, many families living near the compound, and some still living in the north, may be eligible to come to Israel on the basis of family reunification.
It is unclear whether the Ethiopian government is restricting the number of Falash Mura who are permitted to leave for Israel. In any event, there is consensus that a massive airlift would not be an appropriate Action at this time. The Ethiopian government objects to any effort to formally convert the Falash Mura to Judaism.
It is uncertain what impact the rapid emptying of the compound would have on the Falash Mura still in the north. Some assert that it would result in thousands of additional Falash Mura coming to Addis in the hopes of going to Israel. Others believe that such a development would actually discourage any mass movement of the Falash Mura.
Action Recommendations: In view of the severity of the living conditions in Addis Ababa and the fact that five years have passed since Operation Solomon, the NJCRAC urges its member agencies to:
- urge the Israeli government to take all necessary measures, including more intensive discussions with the Ethiopian government, to accelerate the movement to Israel of those Falash Mura near the Addis Ababa compound who are eligible for Israeli citizenship; and to expedite its pending investigations of the remaining Falash Mura near the compound;
- seek to assure that the humanitarian needs of those Falash Mura found not eligible to go to Israel also are addressed in an appropriate manner; and
- explore with US government officials, if appropriate, how this country might provide diplomatic and other assistance in order to resolve this issue.