By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In shantytowns scattered around the imposing Israeli Embassy here, thousands of self-described Ethiopian Jews wait idly, hoping one day to make it to the Promised Land.
They started flooding to Addis Ababa nearly a decade ago, expecting to join a massive migration to Israel. Now many are caught in limbo. They abandoned their jobs, homes and in some cases even religious beliefs, but are uncertain whether they will ever join a resettlement program bogged down by budget constraints, political whims and an international debate over who is a Jew.
Like many, Haymanot Hailu, 34, moved eight years ago to a one-room metal shack in the shadow of the heavily guarded hillside embassy. She and her husband gave up a comfortable life as sorghum farmers in the green hills of the north to bring their six children to Ethiopia’s congested capital. Neither has been able to find steady work, and they barely earn enough as day laborers to feed the family.
They are sustained by one dream: to go to Israel, where, Hailu says, her sister is waiting.
"I miss our old life very much, but now I try to forget it," she said. "I’m only looking forward. There’s no going back. I don’t know what we will do if we don’t go. We are Jews and we want to go to the Promised Land."
It’s unclear whether Hailu, and thousands like her, will be judged by Israeli authorities as eligible for relocation. Many are suspected of feigning Jewish roots to trade an often impoverished existence for a more comfortable, government-subsidized life in Israel. Others simply won’t qualify under eligibility rules, which require them to have relatives living in Israel.
"We can’t estimate how many are waiting for nothing," said Ori Konforti, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Addis Ababa, which has been appointed by the Israeli government to sort out who is a Jew and which Jews qualify for immigration. A final list of those eligible for resettlement is expected in June.
"It’s a tragedy," he said. "We’re going to give many people — maybe hundreds, maybe thousands — a negative answer."
Israel’s ambitious resettlement efforts have relocated more than 50,000 Ethiopian Jews over the last 20 years. These potters and weavers, known as Beta Israel, or Falasha, are believed by some to be lost descendants of the ancient tribe of Dan, perhaps emigrating from what is now Israel to Egypt nearly 2,000 years ago.
Many Ethiopians believe the first Jews arrived here 1,000 years before that with Menelik I, allegedly the son of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. According to Ethiopian legend, Menelik and a group of Hebrew scholars left Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant, containing the original Ten Commandments, which some believe still rest in a church in the northern city of Aksum.
Other scholars speculate that Ethiopian Jews are former Christians who broke with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church several hundred years ago and began practicing Judaism.
Whatever the origin, the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel had undeniably Jewish roots. Though they had lived in isolated areas of Ethiopia, in the northwestern region of Gondar, they retained Jewish traditions such as observing the Sabbath. Stars of David survived in the communities, and some of their language was similar to Hebrew.
Most of these Ethiopians left their homeland in dramatic airlifts, one during a famine in 1984 and a second in 1991 when the country’s then-communist government collapsed. Today only a handful of the original Beta Israel remain.
The current controversy surrounds a second group, the so-called Falash Mura, who say their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries or opted to forsake their religion to escape social ostracism and economic discrimination.
After watching the first wave of Ethiopian Jews depart, thousands of Falash Mura rushed to embrace their Jewish roots and claim rights under Israel’s Law of Return. Estimates of this group range from 15,000 to 25,000, including 2,500 to 5,000 in Addis Ababa.
Skeptics have questioned some of the claims.
"It’s a very convenient story if you want to go to Israel," said historian Richard Pankhurst, founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. "But there is no evidence of forced conversion in Ethiopian history."
Jewish scholars also have debated whether the Falash Mura should be considered Jews. For most of the last 15 years, Israel has resisted calls to resume massive airlifts for them.
Would-be immigrants are increasingly frustrated.
"The Israeli government hasn’t kept its promises," said Getnet Mengesha, 36, a Falash Mura community leader in Addis Ababa who moved from Gondar in 1998.
Last fall, he and several hundred other Falash Mura in the capital went on a hunger strike for three days, demanding the right to emigrate and defending their Jewish roots.
As a boy, Mengesha says, his Ethiopian Orthodox Christian father divorced his mother after learning her family was Beta Israel. Though there is a debate about the level of persecution faced by Ethiopian Jews, there’s little doubt that Beta Israel were never fully accepted into society.
"We had to hide ourselves," Mengesha said. Though he was raised Christian, he said, his mother’s father secretly taught him about his Jewish heritage. "Now we are proud to be Jewish."
He and others waiting in Addis Ababa have rushed to embrace Jewish lifestyles and practices.
Each morning, scores gather in a makeshift open-air synagogue with a dirt floor and a corrugated-aluminum roof held up by steel beams painted blue and white. The walls are decorated with colorful paintings depicting Moses and the enslavement in Egypt. Worshipers cover their heads with homemade yarmulkes, baseball caps and prayer shawls, reciting prayers in Hebrew.
For a while, young Falash Mura learned about Judaism at a school operated by the U.S.-based North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which offered Hebrew lessons, free meals, computer training and other assistance. The group also ran the synagogue.
But some immigration experts in Ethiopia and Israel say the humanitarian effort complicated matters by creating dependency among once self-sufficient farmers and attracting desperate families to Addis Ababa in search of free services even though they were not eligible for relocation.
Under pressure from the Ethiopian and Israeli governments, the group closed most of its operations in the capital a year ago. Community members have kept the synagogue running, but the school remains shuttered, and dozens of dusty computers sit unused in a locked room.
Israeli officials say they are working to resolve the resettlement issue. Last year, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered that 15,000 Falash Mura be resettled by 2007, characterizing it as the final wave of the Ethiopian immigration program.
"We are trying to put this topic to an end," said Konforti of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
But the new program is off to a slow start. To meet the 2007 deadline, 600 immigrants should depart each month. Currently only about half that number leave, hindered in part by lack of funds, Konforti said.
This week, a delegation of U.S. Jewish leaders that recently pledged $100 million toward the immigration effort is planning to visit the region to oversee progress. About $23 million is expected to be spent on food, housing and education for Falash Mura in Ethiopia.
Konforti said he hoped that the relocation program would be running at full speed by March.
Around Addis Ababa, would-be immigrants say all they can do is wait and pray.
Germa Tesfahun, 41, recently got the call he had been waiting for since 1998. He was told by the Israeli Embassy to bring his wife and three children for medical checkups and orientation before flying to Israel.
Interviewed on the eve of their departure, he said he would miss his friends and family in Ethiopia.
"But I’m one of the lucky ones," he said. "This is about giving my children a better life. They are the ones I’m thinking about."