The Current:
Spring 2007
If I Forget Thee: Life in Kavalla 16
Max Levis

Kavalla 16 is not a tourist destination. No signs lead you to the wandering neighborhood surrounding the local oil reserves. Behind aluminum doors and barbed wire, an Israeli flag flies. A barefoot guard indicates with his gun that the offices are closed. The offices in this town are always closed to me. Children hold my hand and walk with me down the slope towards another group of mud homes, my home is in the Jewish community of Gondar, Ethiopia.

Long after the initial rescue efforts which brought the majority of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, more than ten thousand people of Jewish descent diligently wait in places like Kavalla 16 for the realization of their return to Zion. Although the cause of Ethiopian Jewry prominently figures into international Jewish charities, faces of Ethiopian children coloring every United Jewish Appeal (U.J.A.) calendar, dealings with remaining Ethiopian Jews retain little transparency. Indeed, until Israel's recent ruling, there were no formal parameters measuring Jewish identity among the many that declare Jewish ancestry. This lingering ambiguity has worn away at the community structures, breeding extreme corruption, poverty, and depression. I spent last spring living together with this group in Ethiopia, trying to gain greater understanding about how the community functions, and what prospects there are for change.

A recent decision by the Israeli Supreme Court attempted to seal the quixotic fate of Ethiopian Jewish immigration by appointing fixed qualifications for new immigration, allowing a specific quota of those who claim Jewish ancestry to proceed to Israel, while excluding the majority. Thousands of families that have been waiting for over eleven years for immigration rights were thus rebuffed, prevented from reuniting with their relations already in Israel based upon an evaluation of the their ethnic Judaism. Although Israel's declaration was necessary and long overdue in bringing clarity to this murky territory, this quick-fix denies qualifications of Jewish identity that transcend biology.

The Supreme Court ruling draws a line between populations, hoping to mark a distinction between those with Jewish ancestry and those who practice Judaism. Creating such a boundary is, however, fraught with complexity because vast portions of Ethiopia claim Jewish roots. National Ethiopian mythology traces the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, claiming that the offspring of this union ruled the Ethiopian empire, founding a dynasty extending to the late Ethiopian ruler Halie Sallasie. In terms of Jewish practice, there is necessarily variation across the breadth of this population. In measuring this dynamic, however, Israel has faltered, failing to recognize the legitimacy of those who have stepped outside the boundaries of traditional practice but have now returned.

Whether or not we accept the validity of the Queen of Sheba narrative, the Jewish presence in Ethiopia is historically well documented. Ethiopian Jews are thought to be descendants of Dan, one of the ten northern tribes exiled by Assyria in the eighth century B.C.E., who ventured to Ethiopia via Yemen. Although this population remained a cohesive bloc for generations, over the last century mass conversion perforated the community's insularity. Coinciding with European Jewry's discovery of their Ethiopian coreligionists, European missionary efforts began exploiting the community, claiming to be themselves legitimate Jews. With sufficient pressure and growing national anti-Semitism, conversion became mainstream. While the Jews who maintained Judaism assumed the title of Beta Israel (literally "the house of Israel"), the group that converted to Christianity became known as Falasha Mura, "those who have changed their faith."

Reacting to political instability in Ethiopia, threats of anti-Semitism and general famine by 1984, large groups of Beta Israel crossed the border into Sudan, hoping to proceed to Israel via any means possible. Israel responded to this need by arranging the successive Operations Moses and Joshua, which secretly airlifted thousands of these refugees to Israel. In 1991, Operation Solomon continued this airlift amidst the resumed war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, bringing 14,000 Ethiopians to Israel in a matter of thirty-six hours. While Israel concentrated on the immigration of Beta Israel, the Falasha Mura were cast aside.

Captivated by prospects of escaping the struggles of Ethiopia for a ticket to the first world and by a messianic return to the land of Israel, many Falasha Mura amassed, hoping to similarly proceed to Israel. Although the Falasha Mura had assumed Christianity, this change was relatively recent and Jewish connections were maintained. According to The Law of Return, Israel's official platform for aliyah, or immigration to Israel, the state is bound to welcome the spouses, the children, and even the grandchildren of Jews. By this mandate, even if Ethiopian Jews have completely lost religious tradition, or had even converted to other faiths in the past generation, they still fit the requirements defined by Israel's policy and thus are legitimate in their desire to immigrate. Although Israel initially blocked the Falasha Mura immigration, Jewish charities rallied to support this population, providing them with food, shelter, and Jewish education.

Anticipating imminent aliyah, communities abandoned their ancestral villages for urban areas where it would be easier to continue to Israel. Israel learned slowly that for all the Ethiopian Jews it accepted, equal numbers of new arrivals would flood the embassy compound in Addis Ababa. Israel consequently established headquarters in Gondar, a midsized city in Northern Ethiopia close to the Jewish villages. This act which both kept this community out of the international spotlight and close to their home communities. Claiming issues with their religious legitimacy, international politics, and lack of funds, Israel stalled the mass immigration of the Falasha Mura, and thus created Kavalla 16.

Feeling responsible for this unwanted population, American Jewish aid groups took the reigns managing this mixed community. Ethiopian religious leaders were of the first people to emigrate, leaving behind a group with more Christian than Jewish exposure. Responding to this lack of exposure, the aid groups emphasized renewing Jewish traditions, albeit from an American Jewish vantage. Under the tutelage of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) representatives, remaining religious practices were discarded in favor of the Judaism that they were being offered.

Although there are clearly profiteers among the Falasha Mura with little interest in Judaism or Israel, motivated exclusively by material reward, their experience living in Kavalla 16 has Judaicized the population; the people's lives have been shaped by the quest for aliyah. Corruption runs deep, yet people are determined to rise above the bureaucracy and advance to Israel.

Life in Kavalla 16

Fellow travelers had warned me of inevitable frustration in visiting Kavalla 16. An Israeli girl told me that people had forced her out of the Jewish neighborhood with machine guns. I later found the Hebrew tutorial books she had brought from Haifa on a shelf in an Addis Ababa hostel. Reports had circulated weeks before explaining a decisive split between NACOEJ, the coordinator of international funds bound for Ethiopian Jews, and the local Jewish community. The Jerusalem Post documented that the organization's offices were closed, visas were revoked, and the leader jailed. All those aligned with NACOEJ, including the U.J.A., and South Wing to Zion, groups previously instrumental in pushing the Ethiopian Jewish platform, were defamed by claims of corruption. In the wake of these groups' absences, the community persists independently, sputtering to assert autonomy.

I found the remaining Jewish community, interspersed with non-Jews, Falasha Mura residing in small shacks abutting Christian homes. This neighborhood several kilometers from the city center bustles with children playing in the washed out streets. Animals graze as elders look on, respectfully attended by dutiful wives and children. A synagogue, a school, a dilapidated office of the Israeli consulate, and ten-thousand Falasha Mura huddle in this makeshift shtetl.

I arrived in Gondar on Shavuot, the Jewish holiday commemorating the receiving of the commandments at Sinai. Countering my expectations of celebration, I was refused entry into the synagogue, in much the same way that I was refused entry into the school and the Israeli consulate offices. Coming too close for the guard's comfort, guns were apologetically raised and pointed at me. Refused by official community structures, confused, and isolated, I turned to the people, hoping to find a welcoming entrance.

While one would imagine that the non-governmental organization desks or at least the Israeli offices are staffed with full time representatives, I found little infrastructure. The Jerusalem offices, with which I had previously consulted, did little to prepare me, claiming that they themselves had little remaining contact. After unsuccessfully trying to track down the mysterious Dr. Rick, an Israeli-American who runs medical clinics throughout the country, I asked around if there were any Hebrew speakers present in the village and was soon taken to the home of a boy roughly my age, who greeted me in oddly formulaic Hebrew.

Dagerage Abate speaks more Hebrew than the teachers in Kavalla 16's school. He has the air of an aspiring politician as he tells me that he associates with the elders, but identifies as the voice of the future and is ready for life in Israel. Dagerage is the grandson of a neighborhood patriarch, Tsehome, who although blind, alertly presides over all neighborhood interactions. The poster child of Kavalla 16, Dagerage personifies the village's cultural norms. Dagerage happily showed me his prize possessions: the Hebrew primer donated by an American visitor, the tallit and tefillin which had been sent from America, the letters pen-pals had sent, a Yankees hat, and a Torah scroll that he had started writing.

Tsehome is old stock Falasha Mura. He remembers the period of conversion to Christianity, the expectation of embetterment which never actualized. He never really left Judaism, as his Christian neighbors refused to accept him as one of their own. Not unlike the Marranos of sixteenth-century Spain, the Falasha Mura stumbled between identities, unable to become reintegrated with the Jewish community or to be accepted as Christians. Tsehome, however, has returned to Jewish practice, albeit defined by foreign conventions.

Hospitality is de rigueur among the Falasha; there is very little but all is shared. Families graciously invite their children's friends, and I too was included, and made quickly a part of all social circles. During the day I spent time with children, kids bored of school and the lack of learning which happens there, and with teachers frustrated with the lack of communal resources. The Jewish school is not licensed by the state and therefore does not benefit from any national education funding. Whereas other children in Gondar comfortably communicate in English, the children of Kavalla 16 have no command of the language. Their Hebrew skills are even more negligible, and yet the children cling to me, offering broken Hebrew words, coffee, and loving smiles. Sugar is a precious commodity, but my refusals fall on deaf ears as they insist on sweetening my cup.

The Ethiopian economy is not strong, and the Jewish bloc is particularly immobile and financially insolvent. People explain to me that their background is subsistence agriculture, and urban life deprives them of financial independence. They tell me anti-Semitism prevents them from getting jobs. People do not earn wages but instead rely on international donations and the regular money transfers from family already in Israel. When money comes in, people graciously invite others for a beer in the local Jerusalem Hotel. Only one acquaintance had a clear profession, a tailor sewing suits and uniforms in his home. Held in esteem by all villagers, communal meetings center around his pedal pumped Singer Sewing machine.

My discussions generally focused on what life in Israel is like. What is it like to live in Jerusalem? What will they do when they arrive? Do I know their cousins in Bat Yam or in Arad? How can I help catalyze their aliyah? As people gained confidence in me, they felt more comfortable to articulate their frustrations, particularly those directed at the people who assumed leadership in the wake of NACOEJ. Numerous voices claimed that this group prevented headway so as to keep international money flowing into their own pockets. Rather than facilitate immigration, the process is intentionally slowed to benefit leaders' financial interest. Fear is rampant and rumors circulated that anyone who questioned the authority of this leadership council would face imprisonment by the police.

Complaints about room for growth are ubiquitous throughout the community. People do not know what to invest in, as their current residence is assumed to be temporary. Israel similarly wants to encourage these peoples' self sufficiency but does not want to incur unnecessary costs in building schools and hospitals if this town will not last long. Israel is careful not to make Kavalla 16 attractive and bring more people to its boundaries. From house to house I heard the same chorus of complaints: the school was failing, there were no jobs, the donations received were only fractions of the promised allotments, the medical facilities were insufficient, the cemetery was unreachable, and anti-Semitism was rising. People were giving up hope.

Early one morning a group of men, an underground collective focused on changing Kavalla 16, presented me with an opportunity to help. Sworn to secrecy, I was assigned the task of making Kavalla 16 known to the world by writing letters and translating documents. Unfamiliar with internet technology as a means of reaching beyond Ethiopia and crippled by language barriers, they turned to me to bear their gospel. As my presence became more public, the recognized political authority began monitoring my internet activities and following me through town. While working on computers in local internet cafés, I was frequently told by fellows from Kavalla 16 that people would monitor my screen from afar and check the printouts and saved documents. Meetings were always in different places, back roads were taken, public spectacle was hushed.

The act of political demonstration in Kavalla 16 binds people together, inspiring optimism for systemic change. As Ethiopian Jews are forced to take on more responsibility in sculpting their fate, the community will grow to greater cohesiveness and communal strength. The recent separation from NACOEJ attempted such aspirations and will perhaps achieve those ends. However, in the meantime, the community languishes without the support NACOEJ provided. The corruption that now rules hopefully will be broken and replaced by legitimate community representatives. Slowly, as they are able to flex muscles of independence, they will be able to stand together, and make their voice heard.

Ethiopia in Israel

This activism in Ethiopia shadows the activism of Ethiopians already in Israel. In the last Israeli election, Ethiopians and their supporters pooled together to start a party focusing on immigrant rights. Although the party failed to earn Knesset seats, the party itself represented an accomplishment of unifying a population, generating a platform of Ethiopian-Israeli identity. Although most Ethiopian Jews in Israel have shed traditional Jewish practices, the continued fight for representation galvanizes Ethiopian Jews in common struggle.

Tensions have developed between recent Falasha Mura immigrants and the established Ethiopian Israeli population. Many of the Beta Israel are uncomfortable with the reality that former converts are given the same privileges as those who remained faithful. Ethiopian Israeli leadership has also taken an outspoken roll in criticizing Falasha Mura Christian missionaries who have come to Israel and promote Christianity among the Ethiopian population. Although I did not encounter missionaries in Kavalla 16, this symptom makes sense as a product of the rife dissatisfaction present. This point argues all the more so for the need for thorough and expedited immigration.

Given that the Ethiopian population has a very high statistic of Jewish genealogy, and that this community is largely made up of uneducated peasants eager to exit Ethiopia, Israel cautiously limits immigration. Moreover, the continued challenge of integrating Ethiopian Jews now residing in Israel into Israeli society at large documents the longstanding nature of this investment. However, in comparison to the mass immigration of Russian Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union, the cost of welcoming the Ethiopian Jews is small. Nevertheless, unlike the Russians who came with education and work skills, the Ethiopian immigrants have no such background and need extensive training before possibly finding jobs. This cost, lingering racist attitudes, and Israeli bureaucracy prevents conclusive ends.

Despite Israel's anxiety about absorbing the Falasha Mura, decisive rulings have been made in their favor by certain powerful Israeli voices. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Sephardic Shas political party, declared that Christian conversion was done forcibly and therefore void according to Jewish law. Other prominent Israeli political figures, including former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Knesset leader Natan Sharansky have rallied for the complete immigration of the Falasha Mura. These mixed messages challenge any rulings that the Israeli court attempts to apply.

The Supreme Court's decision is a step in the right direction; developing specific criteria for immigration followed by mass movements are necessary steps in finalizing the process of Ethiopian aliyah. However, the recent declaration neglects the complexity of the situation. Israel has come to recognize that the Falasha Mura have the right to aliyah, although they are being very restrictive about what constitutes Falasha Mura status. The Supreme Court denies Falasha Mura status to those living in Kavalla 16. But even without legitimate religious credentials, those living in Kavalla 16 have been living as Jews under NACOEJ's supervision. Additionally under the Right of Return, these individuals remain legitimate candidates as they are biological offspring of Jews even if they are not practicing. Israel must respect the subtleties of circumstance, the reasons for past conversion, and the implications of years spent living in the Jewish community. Those who do not qualify must be respected and given financial rewards to allow them to carry on with life, buy land, and reinvest themselves in Ethiopia.

Max Levis is a Columbia College senior majoring in religion and psychology and fixing the world slowly. Last year Max jumped out of school to travel from Uman down to Uganda and is still trying to find his way back home. He can be reached at mel2105@columbia.edu.

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