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False promises of Promised Land for Ethiopia's Jews
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Ethiopia's Jews caught between waiting for imagined heaven and living in daily hell of racism in Israel

GONDER, Ethiopia - In a makeshift synagogue painted in the colours of Israel's national flag, thousands of Ethiopian Jews listen as a sermon is relayed live by mobile phone speaker from the Israeli city of Haifa.

"You are all sons and daughters of Israel. God will give you what you deserve," says rabbi Menachem Waldman in Hebrew as a young interpreter translates into Amharic, Ethiopia's de facto official language.

"We haven't stopped our long struggle to bring all of you home," he adds to passionate nods of approval.

His words offer hope to the 12,000 members of Falashmura -- Ethiopian Jews forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th century but who remain closely attached to the Jewish tradition -- in Gonder, 600 kilometres (370 miles) northwest of Addis Ababa.

Israel brought home 35,000 Ethiopian Jews under Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. Today the total number of people relocated stands at 100,000.

Two years ago, Israel promised that a final group would be relocated before the end of 2007. That deadline expired, leaving many in areas like Gonder and also around the Israeli embassy complex in Addis Ababa.

The Falashmura say previous relocations split families, leaving one half living in Ethiopia and the other in the fabled Promised Land.

"We have been registered for three years but we are still here separated from our father," says 22-year-old Abere Yimenu, who along with younger brother Andebet, are students in a rural Gonder hamlet.

"I was shocked when they only allowed our elderly father to leave back then while we, who can contribute more to the country, were left behind."

Rabbi Waldman supports Aliyah -- the Israeli law of return -- but his view is not shared by others in Israel where some quarters are accused of racial discrimination against the Falashmura.

"They even allowed Russian Jews to bring their cats and dogs," says Getu Zemene, a local representative of the US-based advocacy group the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).

"Jews here are black so it is a completely different matter," he adds.

The trigger for the earlier exodus was the 1974 coup that toppled Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and brought in Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The latter's Marxist-Leninist dictatorship fanned anti-Semitism in a country with a proud Christian Orthodox tradition and where Jews had long been a target of missionaries.

According to reports from the time, an estimated 2,500 Jews were killed and some 7,000 made homeless in the first weeks of the coup, the start of a bloody reign in which tens of thousands of Ethiopians who were slaughtered or disappeared.

After taking office in 1977, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin asked Mengistu to allow 200 Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel aboard an Israeli military jet that had emptied its military cargo in Addis Ababa.

Mengistu agreed and that may have been the precursor of the mass exodus.

But times have changed. Despite a favorable government in power in Addis Ababa since 1991, fierce debates among political and religious leaders in Israel over the Falashmura's Jewishness have delayed, if not hindered relocation.

The debate is nothing new however, Ethiopia's Jews were only allowed to enter the country in 1975 after the Jewish state's rabbinate recognised them as members of the lost tribe of Dan.

Until February 2007, 200 people a month were arriving in Israel, according to the Israeli embassy here. But that now seems to have stopped.

But even for those who made it, life has not been easy with many Ethiopians complaining of discrimination and racial abuse.

"We are fighting against discriminations such as school segregation and covert racism in jobs that hinder assimilation of our group into the mainstream Israeli society," says Getnet Awoke, a 38 year-old preacher who recently returned to Ethiopia to help prepare his fellow Jews for aliyah.

"We've had several cases of suicide in the community in Israel. Some have thrown themselves off buildings and some have hanged themselves," he says.

"Even conscripts serving in the army have shot themselves after being unable to cope with the racial abuse," he adds.

"They face a world of difference once they arrive in Israel. The younger ones take less time to assimilate but those from the remote areas and the older ones face a massive culture shock," says Getnet.

But in impoverished Gonder, there is still hope.

"It's only a matter of time. We will all make it some day to the Promised Land," says Getu.

Source >  Middle East Online  | oct 28

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