Are the Jews of Ethiopia in danger?

The news from Ethiopia and its ongoing civil war in recent weeks has been terrifying, with accounts of war crimes from all sides, a serious threat of famine in the north, and rebels from Tigray fighting the oncoming federal government. to the capital, Addis Ababa.

With rebels between 230 km. 325 km. Since Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian government has asked residents of the capital to prepare to defend the city themselves, and has also begun to carry out forced conscription into the army.

With the situation so dangerous, concern has increased for the communities of Ethiopian Jews and Jewish descendants who remain in the country, and many Ethiopian-Israeli families are increasingly concerned about the safety of their relatives.

Earlier this week, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata met with senior security officials and decided to expedite the immigration to Israel of those who remain with valid claims to move to Israel.

The Jerusalem Post understands that a plan being developed by the two ministries would see the arrival of these immigrants in a matter of weeks.

PNINA TAMANO-SHATA: We are the generation that deserved to be the one that returned to Zion, and we must encourage aliyah because this is the home of all Jews. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM / THE JERUSALEM POST)

The war began a year ago in November 2020 when the Ethiopian federal army launched an attack on the Tigray region for holding regional elections after the central government suspended national elections, allegedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal army was initially successful, but a counterattack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has left it reeling, and the latter is now making significant advances in the Amhara region, and is currently 325 km away. by road from Addis Ababa.

The communities of Jews and descendants of Jews are located in two main areas. One is Gondar in the north, which is less than 200 km. from Tigray and where the TPLF arrived at 65 km. from the city about a month ago, before they were turned away, and the other is Addis Ababa.

The exact number of people in these communities is unclear, although activists say there are 3,000 in Addis Ababa and 11,000 in Gondar.

The number of those who remain has been a matter of controversy for many years. In 2010, the Israeli authorities drew up and accepted a list of some 9,500 people, who belonged to the community formerly known as Falash Mura, but now call themselves descendants of Jews.

The overwhelming majority of this group were of paternal Jewish descent, and since their ancestors converted to Christianity in the late 19th century, they are not eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return and were not included in Rabbi Shlomo’s ruling. Amar in 2005 to bring descendants of Ethiopian matrilineal Jews to Israel.

Instead, they emigrate to Israel under family reunification laws passed through the Interior Ministry.

In 2015, the government passed Resolution 716 to bring all the remaining members of this group to Israel, and around 4,500 have arrived since then.

The decision made earlier this week refers to the 5,000 remaining members of the community, and of those, those who have first-degree relatives in Israel and meet other conditions will be able to come to Israel in the coming weeks, sources close to Tamano. Shata has said.

Since the list was compiled in 2010, another community claiming to be of Jewish descent of 5,340 people from the Gojjam region has also applied to immigrate to Israel.

According to high-level religious Zionist rabbis such as Rabbi Yaakov Medan, Rabbi Re’em HaCohen, and others, more than 90% of this group are of maternal Jewish descent, and these rabbis have asked to be brought to Israel as well.

Activists say the natural growth of the entire community of Jewish descendants since 2010 accounts for the rest of those seeking to come to Israel.

The consensus among various experts and activists appears to be that the safety of these communities is no different from that of other Ethiopian civilians, something with which Kasaw Shiferaw, president of the Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah Activists group, generally agrees.

However, he notes that Gondar’s proximity to Tigray has meant that there is now a curfew in the city, while the army has established a base adjacent to a Jewish cemetery, meaning that there is now no access to it for the community.

But a more pressing concern, Shiferaw notes, is the phenomenon of conscription, which has also affected communities of Jews and of Jewish descent, and he says he has heard of four incidents in recent days in which they have been recruited. members of these communities. in the army.

Setargew Amare, who moved to Israel from Ethiopia in 2008, said Thursday that his brother and his niece’s husband were forcibly recruited into the Ethiopian federal army two days ago.

He became concerned that he could not reach them by phone and spoke with his nephew, who told him what had happened.

Danny Limor, a former Mossad member who participated in the operation to bring Ethiopian Jews Beta Israel to Israel in the 1980s, says he does not believe there is a specific danger in which Jews and descendants of Jews will be persecuted. by either the federal government or the TPLF because of his Jewish identity.

It notes that the TPLF was the dominant political party that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, during which time the various Jewish communities did not suffer persecution.

The current government, in place since 2018, has had good relations with Israel and has no record of persecuting its Jewish communities.

However, Limor cautiously said that “during times of war, Jews can often become scapegoats,” so he did not rule out that these communities may still face dangers beyond those of other citizens.

He also specifically noted that in Addis Ababa there are between 750 and 800 people in the community of Jewish descendants who are at high risk as they are originally from Tigray, and said they have been confined to their homes for fear of reprisals.

More broadly, the possibility of the TPLF trying to capture Addis Ababa means that all city residents could be caught in the crossfire, including communities of Jewish descent, Limor said.

It also noted that earlier this week the US State Department ordered the departure from Ethiopia of non-emergency US government employees and their families “due to armed conflict, civil unrest and possible shortage of supply “.

This gives a general indication of how dangerous the situation in the country has become, Limor said.

Joseph Feit, chairman of the Fight to Save Ethiopian Jews (SSEJ), which is providing aid to Jewish and Jewish-descendant communities and is closely monitoring the situation, says he does not believe the TPLF will try to capture Addis Ababa in the next month to six weeks.

What concerns Feit particularly at the moment is the general well-being of these communities, particularly in Gondar, where he says they are among the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society to begin with.

It points out that between 50% and 60% of the children in these city communities, more than 500 children, suffer from chronic malnutrition.

The members of these communities are generally very poor, having left their ancestral villages to press their immigration claims to Israel, and live hand in hand in day laborer jobs, which have dried up since the civil war escalated.

Food prices are rising for various reasons, while the war itself and COVID-19 have severely affected the city’s economic situation, meaning that residents of communities have fewer job opportunities and less ability to provide for their families.

If the TPLF tries to capture the city, Feit worries that Jewish communities will be stranded and caught in the crossfire.

He says the government should begin efforts to bring those eligible to Israel immediately, as the Ethiopian central government is unlikely to approve an emergency Israeli military operation.

That would mean transporting them to Addis Ababa first, which would pose a risk due to the war and would be a logistical challenge, hence the need for the Israeli government to immediately start working on the problem.

Speaking more broadly, Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, chair of Ethiopian Jew research at the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jews at Ono Academic College, denounces the fact that many people from these communities still remain in Ethiopia.

It accuses a number of governments of not tackling the issue comprehensively, like other long-term problems, but instead “putting out fires” without satisfactorily addressing the problem.

Shalom says he opposes ongoing immigration on the basis of family reunification, saying that under this model “immigration will never end” due to mixed marriages between the community of Jewish descendants and the possibility of endless claims for reunification. family.

Instead, he argues, all immigration from Ethiopia should be based on whether the people in question are of Jewish descent or not.

This, he says, should be done by convening a committee headed by kessim, the spiritual leaders of the community and the elders and leaders of the community, along with members of the rabbinate and the Jewish Agency.

“The people who know who is Jewish are the kessim … If they bring the kessim and the elders together and form a committee, then they can say who is Jewish and who is not,” he said.

“As long as the kessim do not lead this effort, the chaos will continue.”

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