Category Archives: Chabad and Ethiopian Jews

The Lies of the Rebbe, cont.

In his infamous 1983 letter to me responding to my pleas to help Ethiopian Jews, the late Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote:

Equally, your claims regarding scholarships and other projects you
mention in your letter are not logical and they do not fit in with the
activities and duties of Chabad-Lubavitch institutions or
representatives.

Of course, this was complete bullshit. Chabad had long been involved in using these same methods to save Iranian Jews. (So, to be clear, had Satmar.) But Chabad’s operation had come to a halt early in 1982. And it was no state secret. Iranian Jews saved this way were very evident in Crown Heights and LA, and they didn’t hide how they were saved. Many had moved from the US to Israel, as well.

Many of you questioned me on this point, claiming Chabad had not used student visas to save Iraninan Jews. Well, just to keep the record clear, here is why you were so very wrong:

One late afternoon in October 1978, Hertzel Illulian, a Chabad student from Brooklyn, was silently praying mincha outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Tehran. He took three steps back after reciting the Amidah, the service’s central prayer, and found himself surrounded by a wall of men, secret police dressed in street clothes.

They threatened to cart him off to jail, eventually dismissing him and taking a local Iranian Jew instead.

This was a period of massive unrest in Iran, as pro-Ayatollah Khomeini supporters engaged in often violent street demonstrations against the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had imposed martial law and whose tanks and troops patrolled the streets. But Illulian, then 19, didn’t feel scared.

"I was courageous," he said. "I had the purpose to save Jewish children."

He was an official Chabad student shaliach, or emissary, working on behalf of [Chabad’s] Brooklyn-based National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, and armed with the coveted blessing of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneersohn. This was the beginning of his now-legendary mission to help transport about 3,000 young Jewish Persians, most ranging in age from 12 to 19, using I-20 student visas, from an increasingly dangerous Iran to safety in the United States.…

Illulian, who was raised in Milan, Italy, by parents born in Tehran, has a bona fide track record in this area. It was his idea to bring almost 3,000 young people out of Iran, working tirelessly from 1978 to about 1982 to accomplish it.

Sholem Hecht, rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Congregation and Center in Queens, N.Y., who accompanied Illulian on his first trip to Tehran and assisted in the rescue, said, "There’s no question he played a very special role in the history of Iranian Jews in America."

The Rebbe lied. Ethiopian Jews died. Period. End of story.

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Filed under Chabad and Ethiopian Jews, Chabad History, Chabad Theology, Chabad: Rebbes and the Abdication of Responsibility, Ethiopian Jews

Ethiopian Jews Complain of Missionary Activity by Falash Mura

Ethiopian Jewish leaders have told me for years that many missionaries were coming to Israel with the Falash Mura and were now actively trying to convert Ethiopian Jews in Israel. The story has finally made the papers in Israel:

Spiritual leaders of the nation’s poor, culture-shocked and embattled Ethiopian community opened another front of divisiveness Wednesday, calling to excommunicate members of their community who engage in Christian missionary activity.

The Jewish Ethiopian community plans to compose a blacklist of known missionaries who will be ostracized.

“We know who they are,” said Itzhak Zagai, Chief Rabbi of Rehovot’s Ethiopian community. “The worst punishment imaginable for an Ethiopian is excommunication, because we are all so interdependent.”

Ethiopians who appear on the list will be unable to marry inside the community.…

But what more should be done? Should we deny entry to all Falash Mura because of a few missionaries? Ethiopian Jewish leaders often say we should do just that. The Rabbinute says the opposite, based on a series of halakhic rulings. And the state? The state would just as soon left all Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia. Without outside pressure and some strong intervention from President Regan, that is exactly what would have happened.

Here’s where I come down on this: Bring in all the Falash Mura now. At the same time, begin intensive anti-missionary campaigns in the Ethiopian community. Helping Ethiopian Jews fit in, find work and become Israeli is extremely important. Missionaries feed on poverty and alienation, the two things Israel’s failed absorption policy ensures. Chabad’s shameful treatment of Ethiopian Jews, along with haredi racism, doesn’t help things, either.

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Ethiopian Jews And Orthodox Jewish Racism

I recently exchanged emails with a friend in Jerusalem. He is adamant. Ethiopian Jews are not Jewish. To bolster his point, he cites DNA evidence, evidence that, at most, can indicate that Ethiopian Jews not descended from the southern tribes of Israel, primarily Judah and Levi. He also cites Hebrew University’s Steven Kaplan, who believes Ethiopian Jews adopted Judaism in the early Middle Ages as part of a wave of Judaization sweeping Ethiopia. (Kaplan himself fully supports EJ aliya and absorption, and is very clear on those points.) There is also evidence of this noted by another academic who specializes in Ethiopian song.

The point of this post is not to refute this belief, but I will make one simple point regarding it: Nothing these academics believe and nothing in that DNA evidence precludes conversion to Judaism. In other words, at best this evidence proves not that Ethiopian Jews are goyyim, but that Ethiopian Jews may be converts. And, when you factor in what academics of equal stature say in opposition, or what many others say – based on solid evidence – about the lineage of Ashkenazi Jews, for example, or the ‘unity’ of the Tribes of Israel, one quickly realizes that all of this evidence is a two-edged sword; what cuts the black Jews you so dislike cuts you, deeply, as well.

The point of this post is to ask a hypothetical question: What if Ethiopian Jews are not Jewish? What if they never converted and are not descended from Jews? What if they are simply well-meaning non-Jews who adopted as many Jewish practices as they could and identified as Jews, doing so for hundreds of years, often under great persecution? How should we then properly relate to them?

Let me quote from my friend’s emails because they are representative of many other emails and comments I’ve received over the last twenty-five years:

"[Ethiopian Jews are] just African black guys with feathers and bells singing their ol’ folk tunes   but they sure got rhythm … I see dozens of Ethiopians a day and 95% look like deep African tribal blacks and the other 5 % look more refined  but none of them look Jewish to me… SHVARZAH NIC YIDDEN … they ain’t Jews except to the non-religious politicians who want cannon fodder  they are employed as security guards and janitors and vote for the liberal parties  the lefties love it   canned votes and someone to sweep the floors … you marry a sevarzah and i will marry a Jewish girl  your kids will have rhythm and mine will get a Noble prize (at least statistically)…"

Is this any way to treat people who have suffered as Jews for hundreds of years?

One would think that even those holding the minimalist position, those who reject all evidence in support of Ethiopian Jews’ Jewish descent, would have respect for people who suffered so much because everybody who persecuted them did so to persecute Jews.

Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein mentions this in his letter, and writes: "One should also know that even if in practical application of the law they are not Jews, nevertheless since they think they are Jews and sacrifice their lives for their Judaism, we are obligated to save them." And, as Rabbi Feinstein, Rabbi Ahron Soleveitchik and others have made clear many times, one may not discriminate against a person, Jewish or not, because of skin color.

But it should not take a pesak halakha to teach Jews that. I would think that if a people had suffered so much and risked so much for Judaism and Israel, we would, at the very least, be civil toward them. We certainly would want to help them out of danger and distress, and do whatever is necessary to help them succeed.

Yet, in the Ashkenazi Orthodox world (especially in the American part of it) the opposite is often the case. Here is a quote from an email sent to me by a leading member of the RCA: "[A leading Orthodox professor with close ties to Chabad] once said that the poskim who affirmed the certain Jewishness of the Ethiopian Jews were those who did not read a European language." This is a racist slap at the dozens of Sefardic poskim who hold, just like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that Ethiopian Jews are 100% Jewish. Needless to say, this Orthodox professor is not known as a friend to Ethiopian Jews in any way, not even following Rabbi Feinstein’s minimalist position quoted above – a position, by the way, endorsed by Rabbi J.B. Soleveitchik and dozens of others, as well.

I think this all points to  a larger malaise in Orthodoxy, a malaise that has turned morality into "what can we get away with" rather than "what is the ideal we should strive for."

The mesorah tells us that the Messiah won’t check lineage. Traditionally, questions of lineage have been dealt by rabbis in the most lenient ways possible. Yet, put black skin on people and somehow leniency gets tossed to the wind, and strictness becomes the norm.

This is racism, pure and simple – bigotry based on skin color. Rabbis who allow this, either by commission or by silence, are many. You can find them at your local Chabad House, at your Modern Orthodox shul, on staff at Yeshiva University, and on the streets and study halls of Mea Shearim and Geulah. They work for Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach, study in the Mir, stroll 13th Avenue in Brooklyn. They are plentiful.

It seems to me they are killing Judaism.

[Perhaps the only reason I remained a BT after failing (or so I thought) to get a clear response from the Rebbe on Ethiopian Jews was the reaction of Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Rebbe’s shaliach to the Upper Midwest, to a letter written by Ethiopian Jewish leaders and smuggled out of Ethiopia. The letter detailed the suffering of the people, including several rapes of young girls. As he read the letter, Rabbi Feller began to softly cry. His is the only positive reaction I can cite in all these years, outside of Rabbi Feinstein’s message to me and the endorsement of other rabbis to the public parts of it. In dozens of interactions over many years, I would say well over 98% were wholly negative.]

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Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Ethiopian Jews

Rav_moshe_feinstein_ej_1984Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe’s son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe’s secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit"a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the "Falashas," that it is known what is written in the responsa of the Radba"z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba"z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba"z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of ‘an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood’ and ‘a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown’.

Regarding their Judaism, we must consider it a safek [doubt], and one must require of them true conversion before we permit them to marry within the Jewish community. Yet even before their conversion it is an active precept to save them from being drawn into a non-Jewish creed and from danger as the law is for any Jew, for "safek nefashot l’hakel" ["a doubt involving saving lives is judged leniently"] even where here the doubt is in their very status as Jews.

One should also know that even if in practical application of the law they are not Jews, nevertheless since they think they are Jews and sacrifice their lives for their Judaism, we are obligated to save them.***



As you mentioned, they should not be brought to the Land of Israel* unless they have underdone a conversion**, in order to not increase the concern for assimilation [i.e., intermarriage with Jews who do not have a doubt regarding their Jewish status and also a weakening of the faith of Ethiopian Jews themselves]. But if they have legally converted, and as I have heard they are doing, we shall consider them like all Jews, and one must assist them and support them for all needs of livelyhood, both physically and spiritually. And I suffered great aguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, G-d forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me these people are behaving so only because the color of the Falashas’ skin is black. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – and because there is no distiction in practical application of the law because they are black – but also because one can say perhaps they are gerim [converts], and are therefore included in the mitzva "and you shall love the convert."

And I will conclude with the hope that the situation will improve, and in the merit in observing all the mitzvot, we should all soon merit to the ingathering of the exiles by our righteous messiah.

Your grandfather who loves you in heart and soul,

Moshe Feinstein

[All emphasis added.]

* Suggestions were made to bring Ethiopian Jews to Cyprus or Italy (or even the US or Canada) first to fulfill this request, but it proved impossible to do so. I told R. Mordechai Tendler this would not work. His answer based on conversations with his grandfather was to try anyway, which we did, and to note "safek nefashot l’hakel" in the teshuva. In other words, you have to save them no matter what. Rav Moshe wanted to give Baruch Tegegne and I brachot (blessings) to do so and asked us to come to the mountains, where he was vacationing, so he could bless us in person. Illness on our parts prevented this.

** Rav Moshe would later specify a giur l’humra, a form of pro forma conversion that allows conversion without first pushing away the potential converts and without first teaching them Jewish law. He would also later note that the Israeli Chief Rabbis’ decision on these matters should be respected.

*** Rav Moshe had long before signed a public letter with non-Orthodox rabbis calling for the immediate aid for Ethiopian Jews and for rescue. It is linked here. Rabbi J. B. Soleveitchik signed the same letter. This is the campaign the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to join.

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President Katsav: It Might Have Been Better If Ethiopian Jews Had Stayed In Ethiopia

Israel’s President, Moshe Katsav, had this to say about Ethiopian Jews:

Israel may have been wrong to bring
Ethiopian Jews to Israel, President Moshe Katsav said Sunday in an
unusually candid comment. "At times I feel we did an injustice to the Ethiopian
population by bringing them to the country," the president said after
being presented with recommendations for fighting violence within
society.


Katsav’s remarks came after the Ministry of Absorption
released data showing that during 2005 there was a drop of 11 percent
in crimes involving youths of Ethiopian descent and a 10 percent drop
in crime involving youths from the former Soviet Union.


The president also criticized the lack of appropriate care for youths who emigrated from Ethiopia.

President Katsav did not make the same remark about Russian Jews. I cannot say what President Katsav meant. But I can say this – corruption and repeated (and uncorrected) mistakes do not lead to good absorption. And neither does the bigotry so in evidence from both politicians and rabbis.

But, if history is any indication, Israel will not learn this lesson. The corrupt and inept absorption will continue, politicians and rabbis will not stop being racists. The price for this will be paid by Israeli society, which will have, for years to come, black people on its margins – black people who wanted nothing more than to come home after thousands of years of exile. And it will be paid by Ethiopian Jews, who came home to Israel only to discover the color of their skin is more important than their years of sacrifice.

Shame on us all.

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Israel’s Failed Absorption Of Ethiopian Jews

The Forward reports on Israel’s failed absorption of Ethiopian Jews:

The media also seized on an incident last month in which Ethiopian
students in a Haifa high school were attacked by their fellow students
— all veteran Russian immigrants — during recess. A similar incident
took place in Arad last year. And in the beginning of 2005, two
Ethiopian girls were attacked without provocation in a Tel Aviv dance
club by other Israeli girls. Both of the Ethiopians ended up in the
hospital with serious injuries.…

According to reports from the Tebeka Center, racism also has been a
major problem. The center has dealt with hundreds of complaints
regarding racial discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants. In one
case, a dismissal notice was sent that referred to an Ethiopian
employee as a "nigger." A security supervisor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew
University ordered that no more than one Ethiopian guard be assigned to
any one position. An Ethiopian worker in Arad was told that she is not
allowed to cook for Jews because the local rabbi doubts her Jewishness
and believes that she would taint the food.…

Of course, Chabad also plays a negative role in this sad situation. And so do the haredim.

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Mayor Bars Ethiopian Jewish Children From Schools

Ha’aretz reports:

Six-year-old Adiso Dasa, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia three years ago, did not start school on Thursday. Rather than beginning first grade, he stayed home because of an order given by Or Yehuda Mayor Yitzhak Bokovza barring 50 children of Ethiopian immigrant families from registering in local schools.

The families all immigrated within the past three years, and until a few months ago they lived in absorption centers around the country, where they were given a governmental grant to purchase an apartment. Many of the families chose to move to Or Yehuda, where they believed they could integrate into Israeli society, find jobs and make a decent living. But sometimes dreams are dashed.

In Or Yehuda, it appears, the immigrants received a cold welcome. Mayor Bokovza is angry at state authorities, which, he said, do not allow "controlled absorption of immigrants" and allow large numbers of immigrants to end up in the same city, creating "ghettos." Some 1.5 percent of Or Yehuda residents are Ethiopian, according to Bokovza. "If this situation continues, in two years they will be 4 percent," he said.

Because of his actions, the State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss called on Bokovza to allow the students into the city’s education system immediately. Bokovza will come Sunday to a meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee, where he said he would hand down an
"indictment" against the State of Israel for its conduct regarding immigrant absorption.

Adiso has lived for three years with his family in an absorption center in the Jerusalem area Two months ago his family moved to Or Yehuda. Over the summer, his parents went to the municipality’s education department to register him for class. "They told us the mayor has not yet decided what to do. They didn’t tell us where to go. Now my brother is sitting at home,doing nothing. He is very disappointed by the entire situation," said Rahel, Adiso’s older sister, on Friday.

Ethiopian Immigrants Association chair Adiso Masala had some words for Bokovza: "If citizens of Israel want to move from one community to another, they can do so freely; we’re a democracy. I discovered that this man has no desire to absorb immigrant families. I now call on the government ministries to forbid mayors from denying immigrants the right to be absorbed in their cities, because that would be a dangerous precedent," he said.

Masala also blasted Education Minister Limor Livnat: "I heard her say Thursday that the school year opened with no hitches. Dozens of Ethiopian students who aren’t in school is not a hitch?" he asked.

One person has stepped in to propose a solution Ramat Hasharon Mayor Yitzhak Rochberger, who has already informed the Education Ministry that he has agreed to take dozens of Ethiopian pupils from Or Yehuda into his city’s education system and will even offer busing services to the children. "It is not right that someone who doesn’t send his kids to school risks being shown an arrest warrant, but a mayor is exempt from this. Because of his refusal 50 kids are on the street. I think Bokovza should be presented with 50 arrest warrants, one for each child who was left outside the school gates," Rochberger said.

Bokovza is convinced that he is only saying out loud what many other local authority heads only think, but prefer not to say so as not to be accused of "racist behavior." "When someone is ready to fight, he gets called racist. I am fighting the State of Israel, not Ethiopians. I’m actually protecting them. The State of Israel is sending them randomly to all sorts of places, and causing them to concentrate in certain places. The process could continue, and it should be stopped. Like in a healing process, sometimes you have to cut into the flesh. The sight of dozens of kids who aren’t in school is also distressing for me to witness. Today I will go to the State Control Committee and accuse the government ministries of abandoning certain populations and segregating strong populations from weaker ones," he said.

Compare the above to this: Chabad Schools Ban Ethiopian Jews.

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