The newly-formed Public Council for Ethiopian Jews includes leading Israeli public figures including former Supreme Court Judge Meir
Shamgar, leading human rights activist and Canadian politician Prof. Irwin Kotler, Ethiopian Chief Rabbi Yosef Adaneh, right wing Israeli pol Geulah
Cohen, left wing Israeli pol Naomi Hazan and the National Religious party's Rabbi Hanan Porat.
Why is this council forming? Because the Israeli government is reneging on its original promise to bring in all remaining Falash Mura (descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, largely from the late 1800s through the 1930s) from Ethiopia to Israel. Israel conducted a census of Falash Mura several years ago. The results were broken down into three groups:
Falash Mura in Addis Ababa
Falsh Mura in Gondar
Falash Mura in outlying villages.
According to Avraham Neguise, director of Israeli Ethiopian advocacy group South Wing to Zion:
"The Interior [M]inistry has decided to ignore those people from the villages," he said. "How can the government make the decision to split up families like this?"
But are they Jews? The decision of leading Religious Zionist and Sefardic rabbis is that, yes, they are:
"These people are recognized as Jews according to Halacha and the State of Israel," said Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who helped to compile the Efrati census. "It is our responsibility as a Zionist state to bring these people here and welcome them with an open heart."
While acceptance of this ruling is far from universal in Israeli or Diaspora Orthodoxy, and even though Falash Mura are required to undergo an Orthodox conversion (for halakhic reasons too complex to deal with here), they are still Jews.
Should they be brought to Israel?
Even though there is a very real problem of Christian missionaries hiding among them, once you have a significant halakhic opinion that these people are Jews or safek Jews, there is no other real choice.
Interestingly, Israel was in effect following Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's request. Rav Moshe preferred Ethiopian Jews to be brought to a third country and offered a choice – convert quickly to remove all halakhic doubt (we're talking about a simple yes or no answer, a drop of blood taken form the penis and a dip in a mikva, all done within a few hours) or remain in the third country as a refugee.
That was not feasible during Operation Moses and it anyway was incorrect halakhicly because of the rulings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and dozens of other Sefardic rabbis who ruled Ethiopian Jews were 100% Jewish and that no conversion was necessary. When faced with a situation where some rabbis rule Jewish without any doubt and others rule that a doubt exists, according to halakha one would need to operate on the halakhic assumption that there is no doubt regarding status and these people are 100% Jewish. (This would apply to everything except marriage.)
It would have been incorrect to take an Ethiopian Jew, bring him to Italy, say, and leave him there to live as a non-Jew because refused to convert, not because he does not want to be Jewish but because he is insulted that you question his Jewishness at all, especially after so much sacrifice from his community to live their understanding of Judaism.
In this case, Israel was vetting Falash Mura in compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa. These people studied Orthodox Judaism, Hebrew and Jewish history. They learned how to pray like Orthodox Jews now pray. It was only after this vetting that Falash Mura were brought to Israel.
Whatever your belief about the Jewishness of these people who are descended from Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity as far back as 120 years ago, halakha requires us to approach them as if they are Jews.