Are The Falash Mura Really Jews? (And Does It Matter If They Are Not?)

Falash_mura_girl

A new Falash Mura immigrant with a cross tattoo on her forehead arrives in Israel this month with 150 other Ethiopians. (JTA) [Note the caption would lead one to think all Falash Mura are non-Jews.]

Uriel Heilman of the JTA has another disingenuous report about Ethiopian Jews. While his concerns about the Jewishness of the Falash Mura waiting to go to Israel are mirrored by significant sectors of the Ethiopian Jewish community there, his method of demonstrating this problem again proves his motivation is not to honestly report on this issue:

Though many advocates of Falash Mura aliyah maintain that the
conversions resulted from economic and social pressures, scholars of
Ethiopian Jewish history find little evidence of this.

On the contrary, according to Steven Kaplan’s The Beta Israel (Falasha)
in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, those who
converted were far more likely to face social and economic exclusion
than those who remained Jews. The converts faced ostracism both from
the Jews whose tradition they rejected, and from the Christians who
refused to accept them as full-fledged members of their communities
because they were members of the lowly Beta Israel caste.

What Heilman does here is invert the process. Jews converted for various reasons – among them persecution and the desire to move up the economic ladder. All historians, even Kaplan, admit that there was this combination of persecution and enticement. What Kaplan is commenting on are the results of that process, not the motivations of the individuals who converted.

But Heilman does not stop here:

Even among the Falash Mura who have some biological link to Ethiopian
Jewry, few seemed to have been aware they were Jews until they were
told as much by American Jewish advocacy groups who identified them as
such by their membership in the Beta Israel caste.

In interviews last year in the Ethiopian province of Gojam with Beta
Israel peasants who had not yet migrated to the cities, villagers
demonstrated no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever. Indeed, until their
contact with American Jewish groups working in the cities, they’d never
heard of the Torah, never observed any Jewish holidays or rituals, and
professed a belief in Jesus. Many have crosses tattooed on their
foreheads or wear crosses around their necks.

So, according to Heilman, people who converted generations ago are expected to have a knowledge of Judaism in a country that has no remaining Jewish community to speak of and has no mass media, Internet or other ways of communication that could provide them with this information.

There is real concern among some Ethiopian Jewish leaders that NACOEJ is ‘recruiting’ these Falash Mura and sending them to Addis Ababa, and that the American Jewish community has been duped by this process.

That being said, there is a halakhic imperative, as ruled by the Chief Rabbis, to help those who are truly of Jewish descent. Separating out those who are not is rarely feasible, but this problem is to an extent rectified by the conversions they must undergo before reaching Israel.

If NACOEJ or other groups are "recruiting" Falash Mura indiscriminately, this must be stopped. But the burden of proof is on the accusers. In areas of pekuakh nefesh, we must err on the side of life, even if there is a question about the Jewish status of the lives in question.*

The Forward’s latest coverage can be viewed here.

[Uriel Heilman’s report is achieved after the jump. I do this because of the tendency for news sites to change urls down the road, making the original article difficult or impossible to access. Please view the entire article through the above link to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, rather than below, unless the above link no longer works. Thank you.]

* A separate question involves alleged Christian missionary activity conducted by a minority of these Falash Mura once they reach Israel. This will be dealt with in detail as soon as promised documentary evidence arrives. even is this alleged missionary activity turns out to be true, it would not free us from helping the remaining Falash Mura in Ethiopia. A possible solution to this problem would be to outlaw such missionary activity from Falash Mura rescued by Israel, with the provision that, if discovered, missionary activity could lead to deportation. Children born in Israel would be exempt from this rule. The same could be done for Russian immigrants, who also have this problem, and who have a higher percentage of non-Jews as immigrants than do the Falash Mura. The problem with this solution is obvious. Even if it could pass the Knesset and any court challenges, which is unlikely, the opposition to this from the rest of the world will be overwhelming.

Faced with (correct) rabbinical rulings that mandate rescue, there is no other choice. Rescue must be done with all due speed.

Another solution to this problem would be to develop industries and farming schools in Ethiopia that train the local populace – whatever their religious affiliation. Building Ethiopia’s economy and stabilizing its agricultural, raising the standard of living and health care for all Ethiopians, will greatly reduce the number of people who want to emigrate. And that should reduce the problem of non-Jewish immigration to Israel.

And it has a larger, more important benefit – we will save lives now and in the long run, and we will be doing the good that we should be doing.

A Jewish led "Peace Corps" to Ethiopia may be the best solution to this problem.

Doubts Abound About Identity of Remaining Falash Mura
Uriel Heilman
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
Why has the effort to bring the Falash Mura to Israel remained stalled?
The holdup stems from lingering doubts about the Jewishness of the
Falash Mura, especially among officials charged with implementing the
Israeli government’s decisions, concerns in Israel over the cost of
absorbing another 13,000 to 20,000 Ethiopians, and apprehension that
aliyah of the Falash Mura from Ethiopia will never end.

For Israelis concerned about the prudence of Ethiopian aliyah, the
questions of whether or not the Falash Mura are Jews – and under what
circumstances their progenitors converted to Christianity – are of
paramount importance.

Unlike the Beta Israel, who maintained a distinct Jewish identity in
Ethiopia for centuries, epitomized by their observance of Shabbat and
their rejection of Jesus as the messiah, the Falash Mura converted to
Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though many advocates of Falash Mura aliyah maintain that the
conversions resulted from economic and social pressures, scholars of
Ethiopian Jewish history find little evidence of this.

On the contrary, according to Steven Kaplan’s The Beta Israel (Falasha)
in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, those who
converted were far more likely to face social and economic exclusion
than those who remained Jews. The converts faced ostracism both from
the Jews whose tradition they rejected, and from the Christians who
refused to accept them as full-fledged members of their communities
because they were members of the lowly Beta Israel caste.

This ostracism may have prevented the Falash Mura from intermarrying
with Christians, allowing them to maintain a largely undisturbed Jewish
bloodline until recent times.

This is partly why Israel’s Chief Rabbinate decided to apply the Jewish
legal principle of, "A Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew."
That is, a person is a Jew as long as their maternal ancestral line is
Jewish – even if their ancestors converted to Christianity 10
generations ago, and have been practicing it ever since.

However, there is considerable debate over the degree to which the
Falash Mura intermarried. Advocates of the Falash Mura maintain that
intermarriage was a rare phenomenon until the most recent generation.
Others, including some scholars, suggest that intermarriage has been
relatively common for several generations, and as a consequence, a
great proportion of those designated today as Falash Mura are not
actually Jews.

To complicate matters further, the appellation Falash Mura is applied
today not only to Christians of Jewish descent, but to full-blooded
Christians who have married into families of Jewish descent. These
Christians are estimated to make up to 30 percent of Falash Mura.

Even among the Falash Mura who have some biological link to Ethiopian
Jewry, few seemed to have been aware they were Jews until they were
told as much by American Jewish advocacy groups who identified them as
such by their membership in the Beta Israel caste.

In interviews last year in the Ethiopian province of Gojam with Beta
Israel peasants who had not yet migrated to the cities, villagers
demonstrated no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever. Indeed, until their
contact with American Jewish groups working in the cities, they’d never
heard of the Torah, never observed any Jewish holidays or rituals, and
professed a belief in Jesus. Many have crosses tattooed on their
foreheads or wear crosses around their necks.

For these reasons, Israel requires that all Falash Mura immigrants
undergo a comprehensive conversion course once they arrive in the
Jewish state, culminating in ritual conversion.

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3 Comments

Filed under Ethiopian Jews

3 responses to “Are The Falash Mura Really Jews? (And Does It Matter If They Are Not?)

  1. Anonymous

    I head that the Ethipians aren’t really Jewish.

  2. Miki

    Everything is OK, but the word FALASHMURA means insult word for Ethiopian Jews, the FALASH either Ethiopians accept like offence.

  3. | _

    I keep hearing that about Chabadniks. LOTS of Khazar blood.

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