'They'll say I'm a racist'
By Nir Hasson and Anshel Pfeffer • Ha'aretz
The menu in the kitchen at the Falashmura transit camp in Gondar, northern Ethiopia, is written in English, even though none of the camp's residents or kitchen workers speak that language. In any event, says Ori Konforti, the menu is not there for the benefit of the diners. It is for the guests, Jews from around the world whose contributions finance the camp's operations. In his book "Tzionut Hafuh al Hafuh" (Zionism Upended, recently published in Hebrew by the Zionist Library), Konforti writes: "There are no intact tables there, no sink and no running water. Everything seems to the Western visitor derelict and dirty. Clearly it is all designed to generate empathy and contributions."
Konforti, who until last year was the Jewish Agency's representative in Ethiopia, says that American-Jewish groups wish to keep the immigration of the Falashmura going in order to generate more contributions from supporters who want to be involved in tikkun olam ("repairing the world" activities), enhance the bringing together of Jews from around the world and improve their own relations with the black community in the United States. Israel, he says, became entangled in commitments to the Falashmura, a group with an almost infinite potential for immigration, due to pressure by nongovernmental organizations and politicians, especially from the Shas party.
Konforti does not fully substantiate his arguments, and the American and Israeli organizations that he mentions in his book categorically reject all his arguments.
However, a former senior government official who dealt with the subject and refused to be identified confided: "Everybody is afraid of being accused of racism .... This is neither family reunification nor some other laundered term such as aliyah. It continues to this day because of the state's paralysis and fear."
Within the government there was, in the past, criticism of the policy of bringing the Falashmura - descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in recent centuries - to Israel. The main critics were former interior ministers Avraham Poraz and Meir Sheetrit and former absorption minister Tzipi Livni. Some three weeks ago, after the incumbent interior minister, Eli Yishai, announced the government would examine the eligibility of thousands more of Falashmura who want to come, Sheetrit, today a Knesset member from the opposition Kadima party, said: "This is a great danger. Most experts assume that most of the Falashmura are neither Jews nor the children of Jews. One can always continue looking for tribes who want to come to Israel. Three or four times we were given the story that it was possible to bring over all of those in Gondar, and in so doing to end the saga, and each time, the camp filled up again."
Konforti, 55, was sent to Ethiopia in 2004 as an emissary, and he played a major part in bringing Falashmura to Israel: Fourteen thousand people on 212 flights. He was, in fact, supposed to be the official who brought the story of Ethiopian immigration to Israel to its conclusion, once and for all. Beginning in January 2005, successive Israeli governments have decided to close the camps and stop the immigration, out of recognition that those members of the Falashmura who remained in Ethiopia lacked real connections to Judaism.
Yet about a month ago Interior Ministry officials returned to Africa to examine resuming Falashmura immigration. Officially, the emissaries are supposed to determine the immigration eligibility of 3,000 candidates, but sources close to the interior minister already acknowledge that they plan to expand the examination to 8,700 candidates.
Konforti himself paid for the publication of his book. "It is important to me that what is said here is not attributed to anyone else. I am the one saying it," he stresses, while he predicts: "They will say I am racist. That's clear to me."
Dr. Avraham Neguise, director general of the Israel-based South Wing to Zion, a non-governmental organization that seeks to bring the Falashmura here, indeed says: "If there were a community [like the Falashmura] in the United States, Russia or Europe, its people would be brought here and greeted with a red carpet. It hurts some people to see people whose skin is of a different color."
Rabbi Ovadia's ruling
The origins of the Falashmura problem were in the aftermath of the 1991 airlift to Israel of the overwhelming majority of Ethiopian Jews, called Beta Israel, in Operation Solomon. They left behind a group of several thousand people, Christians who are apparently the descendants of Jews who accepted Christianity under the influence of European or Ethiopian Church missionaries during the second half of the 19th century. Some of them maintained ties, including matrimonial relations, with the Jewish community.
People in favor of their immigration cite the opinion of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who relied on his predecessor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, today the spiritual leader of Shas, who determined that the Falashmura are "complete Jews," but that "gentiles got mixed in with them" so that they need to undergo conversion in order to remove any doubts of their Jewishness.
In 1992 a ministerial committee headed by then-minister of absorption Yair Tsaban authorized the immigration of the Falashmura, but under the framework of family reunification. In other words, they were to be admitted as relatives of Jews who had already immigrated from Ethiopia. Because they had to be converted, the committee decided they would not enter Israel under the Law of Return (which grants every Jew the right to become a citizen) but according to the Entry into Israel Law. That is why the Falashmura are not considered immigrants and they receive Israeli citizenship only after undergoing conversion.
"This narrow humanitarian opening has been widened into a broad corridor," says Konforti. By now some 45,000 Falashmura are here, accounting for about half the Ethiopian community living in Israel.
When he went to Ethiopia there were 10,000 people in the transit camps, and it was meant for them to be the last ones there. However, even after he helped bring over 14,000 Falashmura, there were still another 8,700 people waiting in the Gondar camp. Organizations that help the Falashmura told the last two Israeli governments that they would agree to dismantle the camp after that final group was brought to Israel, and that the camp's closure would end the era of Ethiopian immigration.
Today, however, says Konforti, inside the camps, there is talk of "ten thousand more people who are in the villages and who want to come. To talk about 8,700 is not even a joke." In the book, he writes: "There will always be relatives of Israeli residents who will continue to file new requests for family reunification on humanitarian grounds. Each time, the most recent arrivals file new requests, and so the process will keep repeating itself."
Neguise asks: "Has the immigration from Russia stopped? From America? This should not be different. The people who are now in the camps will not disappear. These are people whom you can touch, talk to. Israel must make the decision to check the 8,700, and that will be the end of the camp."
Even after Konforti came to the conclusion that the Falashmura immigration was a deception, he continued to arrange the journey over rough roads from Gondar to Addis Ababa, and to prepare people for immigration. This included medical examinations, the issuing, for their first time, of identity cards, and a course to prepare the travelers for life in a Western society. These activities were conducted in the shadow of security threats, as it was feared that Muslim terror groups and local criminal gangs might target the immigration flights to Israel.
Neguise asks: "If it was all lies and pretense, why did he take part in it? It's because it was his livelihood. Now that that livelihood ended, does he have to come out and slander an entire community?"
"I spoke up all along," responds Konforti. "The Jewish Agency is flooded with material I sent on this issue."
One of the main targets of his criticism in the book is an American-Jewish organization, the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which established the transit camps and runs them in partial cooperation with the government of Israel. Its activists determine who enter the camps, and consequently who is likely to immigrate, and they pressure the government to bring them over.
NACOEJ, according to Konforti, is also responsible for the false presentations in the Addis Ababa and Gondar camps themselves, in an effort to raise more money. The apex of a visit, he says, is supposed to be the group prayers in the synagogue. Once, when a group of visitors went to the synagogue in Gondar at prayer time, but without having coordinated its arrival beforehand, they found the place empty. News of the visitors' arrival, writes Konforti, "spread through the neighborhood like wildfire, and some 100 people quickly assembled for prayer. It was quite embarrassing, but it provided a peek into the odd 'so-called Jewish' texture that exists there."
He accuses NACOEJ of "creating an illusion" vis-a-vis the Falashmura themselves: "They proselytize and drive them crazy. Their activities verge on ethical, if not legal, criminality."
NACOEJ's executive director, Barbara Ribakove Gordon, told Haaretz, in an e-mail, that Konforti did not talk to any of the organization's members during the preparation of his book, and that he is therefore not familiar with all its activities. She says that the Interior Ministry and not NACOEJ decides who among the Falashmura will come to Israel, and that her organization "is not involved in the investigation or in setting the criteria for migration." Ribakove also stressed that her organization does not exert any political pressure on this matter in Israel.
Another NACOEJ activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied the organization continued to encourage immigration because it wanted to raise more money. "Why would NACOEJ need contributions? These are the richest people in American Jewry, and they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, of their own money, in that community."
He said that in 2005 the organization undertook not to expand its activities beyond the 8,700 Falashmura who were already in the camps. "The claim that the organization continues to encourage Ethiopians to go to the camp is groundless. It is made by people who are hostile to the completion of the immigration from Ethiopia," he added.
An Israeli activist in the organization criticized the claim that the camp's residents are just pretending to be coming closer to Judaism. "How does Konforti know they are not praying genuinely?" the activist asked rhetorically. "How can a person who has returned to Judaism convince someone that he has, indeed, returned to Judaism?"
For years, the overwhelming majority of Interior Ministry clerks who deal with the issue have been people who themselves emigrated from Ethiopia and are considered to be relative old-timers. Konforti says their origin prevents them from rallying to end the Falashmura affair. Even the three officials who recently went to Ethiopia to examine the eligibility of thousands of applicants for immigration are of Ethiopian origin. "Can they tell someone he does not qualify? There just is no such animal. Whoever sent them does not intend to end the affair."
The interior minister, Eli Yishai, has repeatedly stated his enthusiastic support for continued immigration from Ethiopia. The pro-Falashmura lobby also has allies among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's advisers. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said that the Falashmura's immigration requests are checked by the ministry in Israel and not by its emissaries in Ethiopia. As for the employment of members of the community she said: "They were selected in accordance with linguistic needs, and on the basis of purely professional and practical considerations."
All I can add are two things:
1. Non-Falash Mura Ethiopian Jews generally oppose Falash Mura aliya.
2. NACOEJ founder Barbara Ribakove's claim that NACOEJ does not "exert any political pressure" on the Government of Israel regarding Falash Mura aliyah appears, based on information I have, to be false.
NACOEJ certainly does lobby for what it wants, although it may use proxies or lobby "unofficial" sources.