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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shrinking Hope for Ethiopian Jews

ReutersEthiopian children whose families are waiting to immigrate to Israel attending Jewish studies in the Gondar camp.
GONDAR, Ethiopia -- 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.

Tens of thousands of practicing Ethiopian Jews 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 tribe of Dan.

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 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" that gives Israeli citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world.

But now Israel, which has about 110,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent, has finalized a list of the last to be brought in.

That would leave out some 8,000 to 16,000 people in Gondar's sprawling, filthy camp and the surrounding villages.

"I want to go to Israel and change my life. I'm not happy here," said Maskaram Achinef, 9, 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 would be allowed to emigrate before the end of next year.

The Falashas Mura -- which means "outsiders" in Ethiopia's Amharic language -- have vocal supporters in Israel who are lobbying for an accelerated immigration program like the one for hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants in the early 1990s. Some have accused the Israeli government of racist double standards for encouraging Russians to immigrate, while complicating and delaying the Ethiopians' entry.

But senior Ethiopian leaders in Israel support a swift end to the Falashas Mura immigration, amid concerns that some have feigned conversion to Judaism for the chance to move to Israel.

The Falashas have been an isolated group ever since they emerged in the region in pre-Christian times. Ancient records show they were barred from owning land and hardly ever married outside the community. In 1668, Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes I issued a decree ordering them to live apart from Christians in their own village.

In modern times the legal constraints disappeared but the separation persisted. Mulugeta Kebede, an Ethiopian army veteran who now works as a guard, said: "Nobody hated them. But they kept apart from us. They never married a Christian or a Muslim."

Legend has it that Ethiopia's Queen of Sheba visited Israel's King Solomon and had a son with him. The son become Ethiopia's first emperor.

Whatever their ancient connections, many people in the Gondar camp fear the bad news from Israel is only the beginning: They are concerned by reports that Ethiopian officials are considering shutting the camp down.

Without the possibility of one day immigrating to Israel, they face life on the margins -- forever outsiders in Ethiopia.