March 27, 2007
By Elana Ringler
GONDAR, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Thousands of Ethiopians who say their Jewish roots entitle them to live in Israel are stuck in a squalid camp in Ethiopia, their dream of a promised land fading as Israel scrutinizes their family ties.
Known as "Falashas Mura", the descendants of Ethiopian Jews have reverted to Judaism since their late 18th and 19th century forbears converted to Christianity, sometimes under duress.
Tens of thousands of practicing Ethiopian Jews or Falashas -- which means "outsiders" in Ethiopia's Amharic language -- were airlifted to Israel in dramatic, top-secret operations in the 1980s and 1990s after a rabbinical ruling that they were direct descendants of the biblical Jewish Dan tribe.
By 1998, Israel said it had brought all of Ethiopia's Jews home to the Jewish state but another rabbinical ruling that year complicated matters by also recognizing as Jews those Falashas Mura -- converted outsiders -- who revert to Judaism.
That spawned a special law allowing Falashas Mura with immediate relatives in Israel to immigrate, stopping short of recognizing them under the ‘law of return' which gives Israeli citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world.
"Basically we are speaking about a law which is aimed at family unifications, I don't know of any similar law, any similar system, worldwide," said Israel's Ambassador to Ethiopia, Yaacov Amitai.
Since the law was passed small numbers of Falashas Mura every month have been emigrating to Israel.
But now Israel -- a country built on immigration which says it houses about 110,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent -- has finalized a list of the last to be brought in.
That would leave thousands -- estimates range from 8,000 to 16,000 -- in Gondar's sprawling, filthy camp and the surrounding villages.
Many people in the camps have been waiting for years in cramped mud shacks with no running water or basic sanitation, depending on food donations to survive. Families have been split up, only some of their number allowed into Israel.
Israel has criticized the volunteer groups and charities that have been supporting the camp at Gondar, saying they raised false hopes for thousands of Ethiopians -- many of whom have no connection with the Falashas.
But the camps represent a glimmer of hope for the thousands who have left their villages in search of a better life.
"I want to go to Israel and change my life, I'm not happy here," said 9-year-old Maskaram Achinef, helping her mother sort through grain on the dusty ground, an open sewer flowing just meters away.
"I need a clean house and a good school. This is what will make me happy."
She is lucky. After seven years in the camp her family recently heard they will be allowed to emigrate before the end of next year. Many of their neighbors are still waiting: the Interior Ministry has said more than 6,000 'Falashas Mura' will be allowed in by the end of 2008.
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