Ethiopian Jews go on hunger strike for 'return'

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The Independent Online

The community, also known as the Beta Israel Jews, abandoned their homelands in the north Ethiopian highlands and settled in camps in the capital to wait their aliya (homecoming). The Israeli government has promised to organise a transfer by 2007, but hundreds in the 20,000-strong community say they will pray and refuse to eat for three days to draw attention to their plight.

A group leader, Getnet Mengesha, said: "We have been kept in hope for all these years with a promise to be moved soon to the Holy Land. Israel is our place. We have been displaced for 2,000 years."

The story of the Ethiopian Jewry is one that mixes ancient myths with the modern issues of immigration and race. The community lived as farmers on the shores of Lake Tana, near the historic capital Gondar, long before Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the fourth century. They studied the Torah, and believed themselves to be either the direct descendents of King Menelik I, mythologised as the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or the descendants of the Jews who fled Israel for Egypt when the first temple was destroyed in 586BC.

By 1972, senior rabbis in the state of Israel had concluded that Ethiopian Jews were authentically Jewish, and should be allowed to move to Israel under the country's Law of Return. From 1977 to 1985, more than 17,000 Ethiopian Jews were smuggled into Israel against the wishes of the brutal Derg government. When the Derg regime collapsed in 1991, Israel organised Operation Solomon, sending 36 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules transport planes to fly as many Ethiopian Jews as possible over 36 hours. There are now estimated to be 80,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Most of the protesters in Addis yesterday are descendants of groups that converted to Christianity several generations ago, but they say their ancestors were forced to abandon Judaism against their will and that their community has never abandoned Jewish practices. Most insist that they are relatives or servants of the Ethiopian Jews already in Israel.

In a letter to the Israeli government, they complained: "We have been suffering for the past eight years. We are facing grave starvation and hardship."

The Israeli authorities believe many are pretending to be Jewish to gain the economic benefits of moving to Israel. In January this year, Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, decided, however, that up to 20,000 more Falash Mura could move to Israel on humanitarian grounds by 2007, but the scheme has been delayed by a series of bureaucratic and diplomatic obstacles.

The foreign ministry took until August to submit its draft of a treaty to the Ethiopian government. Mr Sharon ruled out any more airlifts as being too insulting to the Ethiopian government and the new proposals suggested moving 300 Ethiopian Jews a month.

Ethiopia, in turn, wanted Israel to compensate those who are not considered by Israeli officials eligible to migrate. The interior ministry had reportedly only checked the eligibility of 10 per cent of applicants by the beginning of this month.

The problems continue in Israel. Many Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel have complained they have not been moved out of transit camps and into permanent homes as quickly as other, white, immigrant groups. The immigration ministry has also complained that the treasury has failed to allocate the full cost to ensure they are distributed round the country rather than merely allocated to low-income areas.

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