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Falash Mura

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Falash Mura  - Falash Mura (or Falashmura) are Ethiopian Christians who are, or claim to be, descendants of Ethiopian Jews, forcibly converted to Christianity in the 19th century. Falash mura is a term in Ge'ez, a Semitic Ethiopian language related to Hebrew. Several derivations have been offered for the words  "Falash Mura." Falasha the derogatory term for  Ethiopian Jews apparently means outsider, migrant or invader. It may come from the Hebrew root PLSH   (ōģł) which means to invade. Mura could  come from the root hmr äīų "to convert or change" - as one who changes their religion.

The Falash Mura were evidently not known until Operation Solomon, the airlift of 1991, when a number attempted to board the Israeli planes and were turned away. Later, it developed that about 2000 such persons had managed to come on such flights. The Falash Mura said they were entitled to immigrate because they were Jews by ancestry, but some Israelis claimed they are non-Jews, since most had never practiced Judaism and were not considered by the Beta Israel as part of the community.

Falash Mura

A Falash Mura immigrant. Note the cross motif tatoo.

It is not clear that Falash Mura are all Jews under the Law of Return and eligible for immigration under that law. Some may have one or more Jewish parents or grandparents, others do not.

Some Ethiopian Jewry activists claimed  that the Falash Mura had been forced to convert or had done so "pro forma" for pragmatic reasons without ever really leaving their Jewish faith.  The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) began to provide aid to the group that had not returned to their homes after being left behind during  Operation Solomon. This in turn stimulated  more Falash Mura left their villages and soon began to overload the meager resources of NACOEJ. The Joint Distribution Committee  provided additional assistance on a humanitarian basis, without accepting the NACOEJ contention that they were Jews entitled to go to Israel.

Absorption of Ethiopian Jews was problematic and expensive. As the numbers of Falash Mura in Addis increased, the Israeli position hardened. The initial official view was that these people were not Jews and, if they had ever been Jews, it was in the distant past. According to this view, most of the so-called Falah Mura were now practicing Christians who wanted to get out of Ethiopia by any means possible and saw an opportunity to escape by claiming to be Jewish and thereby earning the right to immigrate to Israel. An unknown number of Falash Mura were claimed to have forged records to prove Jewish ancestry, or to have married Jews for payment.  t was simply not going to absorb the entire Ethiopian population.

The Falash Mura claimed they are Jews who needed help to reconnect with their faith. Given the opportunity, they would become practicing Jews. Subsequently NACOEJ began to offer them religious instruction.

Though the Jewish charity groups in the United States accepted the Israeli government view, the assembly of growing numbers of Falash Mura in Addis Ababa under very poor conditions became increasingly embarrassing. Activists pointed to thousands of poor, starving, sick people who wished only to go to Israel and the argument over their authenticity became secondary to their welfare.

The Israeli government set up a committee in 1992 to resolve the question of the Falash Mura. Some Falash Mura were allowed to immigrate on the basis of the Law of Return, since they had a Jewish grandparent, or on the basis of family reunification. If an Ethiopian Jew married a non-Jew, they would be allowed to bring the non-Jewish spouse's parents with them to Israel. This is in line with the 1970 amendment to the Law of Return   

In 1997, all the organizations involved in aiding the Falash Mura decided a solution needed to be found to empty the compounds so no more people would come. The government agreed to a one-time humanitarian gesture to bring to Israel everyone gathered in the camps with some connection to the people of Israel.  Afterward, the camps were to be closed and future immigration was to be based on the criteria used for immigration from all other countries. The government agreed that would be allowed to come to Israel in groups of a few hundred per month. In 1998, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the evacuation of the Falash Mura was complete.

However, there were soon more and more Falash Mura gathering in the camps. In early 2001, nearly 20,000 Falash Mura remained in camps in Gondar and Addis. Approximately 8,000 live in their villages near the camps. The Israelis accelerated their consideration of applications. The first priority was being given to divided families, then those eligible under the Law of Return and finally humanitarian or rare special cases. About one of three applicants was found to be eligible.

The Falash Mura got further support in 2002 when Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef declared that the Falash Mura had converted out of fear and persecution and therefore should be considered Jews.

Israel established a quota of 300 immigrants per month. Advocates for the Falash Mura became increasingly upset by the slow pace of the immigration, as reports began to circulate about worsening conditions in the camps where thousands lived awaiting permission to emigrate. It was not clear that the immigration was emptying the camps faster than they were filling.

Ethiopian Jews are dividied in their opinions of Falash Mura, as noted in a 2006 article:ref.

JERUSALEM, Feb. 26 (JTA) - Overlooking the panorama of Jerusalem’s Old City at twilight a group of Ethiopians teenagers argue whether or not the Falash Mura community should be brought to Israel en masse. “If they are Jewish, why not?” says Sharon Balata, a 16-year-old from Ashdod.

“But no, they are Christian,” protests her friend Yardena Yamrashet, 18, from Rehovot.

Balata pauses then shoots back, “The more Ethiopians there are in Israel the better, right?”

Yamrashet remains unconvinced. The Falash Mura, who are now returning to their Jewish roots after their families converted to Christianity about 100 years ago, are considered an entirely different community by most of the veteran Jewish Ethiopians.

“We don’t feel a connection with them, we just don’t know them,” said the trendy Yamrashet, her hair dyed blond and teased into an Afro.

Some Israelis of Ethiopian origin insisted that Falash Mura immigration should be halted, because Christians had been coming with the immigrants and they proceeded to try to convert Ethiopian Jews to Christianity. ref  However, soon after, a different group of Israeli Ethiopians protested government and Jewish agency plans to halt Falash Mura immigration to Israel at the end of 2007 ref.

In January 2004,  Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that all of the Falash Mura would be brought to Israel by the end of 2007.ref  But in 2005 the immigration apparently stalled out because of problems in Ethiopia, and was only renewed at the end of the year. (Keinon, Herb, and Krieger, Hilary,  Falash Mura immigration to renew, Jerusalem Post, November  10, 2005).ref A year later, the cabinet had cut funds to Falash Mura immigration, but then restored them (Krieger,  Hilary, Cabinet cancels Falash Mura aliya cut, Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2006) ref.

In 2006, an article summed up the problems and the attempt to finally get closure on the number of Falash Mura remaining:

... That has made finalizing the number and names of those qualified to immigrate to Israel the key element to the closing the chapter on three decades of Ethiopian aliya.

There have been problems finalizing that list, however...

"I cannot tell you how many are on the list," acknowledged an official from Israel´s Interior Ministry...

Critics say the Interior Ministry´s slipshod and slack management of the verification process has left the door wide open both for abuse of the system and for endless additions of Ethiopians claiming Jewish ties.

"It's important for me to convey that something illogical has been happening here for years," said Ori Konforti, the senior Jewish Agency for Israel official in Ethiopia. "The Ethiopians are playing us, and they're a lot better than us at this game because it's their home turf."

As a result of the problems, well-meaning American Jews have been maneuvered into supporting even more Ethiopian aliyah, Israeli taxpayers have had to foot the bill, and some Ethiopians with legitimate Jewish links have been forced to wait in Ethiopia for years in squalid conditions, uncertain whether their dream of reaching Zion will ever come true.

Christian Ethiopians pay Ethiopians in Israel to say they are their relatives, background checks sometimes are conducted with little more than a couple of phone calls, and Israel's Interior Ministry has yet to compile a final list of names of those eligible to immigrate.

"We want to know names," Konforti said. "Don´t tell me we have 15,000 people, and let's start the operation. Give me 15,000 names. I think if we don't close the list we may well still be here in another 10 years."

"When we started to campaign we were told that we were going to get a list," lamented Joel Tauber, national chairman of the Operation Promise campaign. "A continual aliyah would challenge the resources of the system and take money away from other live-saving programs we do."

It´s difficult to estimate how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia.

In 1999, an Israeli government census headed by David Efrati counted 26,700 Ethiopians with legitimate claims to immigrate to Israel. Since then, roughly 18,000 Ethiopians have made aliyah, according to the Interior Ministry official, who asked not to be identified.

But rather than there being close to 9,000 remaining, this official says there are 19,000 left.

The Interior Ministry spokeswoman in Israel says there are 13,000 potential olim, or immigrants. Jewish Agency officials in Ethiopia say they are dealing with 15,000 people. Local Ethiopian community leaders say there are more than 17,000. American Jewish officials with aid programs in Ethiopia say the number may far exceed the 20,000-person cap the Israeli government decided upon a year ago. And Israeli scholars say the number may climb by the tens of thousands.

If Ethiopian aliyah is ever to end, some officials warn, some sort of arbitrary ending point will have to be set.

Members of an American Jewish delegation here this month honed in on the issues of eligibility and the compilation of a list as the critical issues left to resolve.

"It should go as quickly as possible," Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee said of the remaining aliyah. Referring to Operation Solomon, in which more than 14,000 Ethiopians were brought to Israel in the space of 36 hours, he said, "Let´s do another operation."

As long as eligibility remains an open question, there are opportunities for Ethiopians to exploit the system.

Mazal Rada, an Ethiopian-Israeli who was in Ethiopia´s Tigray province last week visiting her birthplace, told JTA she was propositioned by a stranger who offered to pay her to tell the Israeli authorities he was her husband.

"It's preposterous. I was 3 when I left," said Rada, who made aliyah with her family in the early 1980s and now lives in Kiryat Gat. "I hear that guy tries to connect himself to all the Israelis who visit here."

Even average non-Jews in Addis Ababa and Gondar are aware of the opportunity to con their way to Israeli citizenship.

"I know people who got to Israel this way," said Kebede Ali, a taxi driver in Addis Ababa who readily admits he has no Jewish relatives. "If I could get out of Africa this way, I would also say I am a Falasha."

Once one family member gets to Israel, that person then can bring others -- and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

"One person like me who goes to Israel, he will get there and then say he has more relatives in Ethiopia, and at the next stage this will happen again and again," Kebede said.  ref

The situation is not really changed as of 2009. An additional complication is that whenever the aliya policy is reviewed or stopped, vicious anti-Zionist propaganda appears in various foreign journals, claiming that Zionism is racist and will not help Ethiopians in distress. Of course, the countries in question would not admit any Ethiopians at all.   Again in 2007, there were plans to end the Aliya and protests against the plans ( Pfeffer, Anshel, 1,000 Ethiopian immigrants protest plans to halt Falash Mura aliyah, Haaretz, December 18, 2007 ref). In May of 2008, it was announced that the Falash Mura aliya would end soon (Newman, Gabi, Gates to close on Falashmura, Ynet May 27, 2008 ref)  And in June of 2008, we find American Jewish actress ("former Israeli") Natalie Portman protesting on behalf of Falash Mura Aliya (Ababa, Danny Adino, Natalie Portman fights for Falash Mura, Ynet, June 3, 2008 ref )  

By August 2008, the Jewish agency had announced that as far as it was concerned, the last of the Falash Murah had been brought to Israel, and the Ethiopian immigration efforts were at an end. ref. They would still extend help to an estimated 1,400 Falash Mura who have concentrated in Gondar and want to be reunited with their families in Israel.  In September of 2008, the decision to end the Aliya was reversed. According to the new cabinet decision, Falash Mura  would be allowed into Israel if they satisfied three criteria: They must be listed on a 1999 census of the Falash Mura; have been living for at least a year in Gondar where Jewish aid groups have provided services; and have relatives in Israel who can petition on their behalf. The number of such Ethiopians  may be as high as 8,700. However, budget cuts threatened to stop the immigration program in April of 2009.ref

The government continues to evacuate the camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa and to periodically announce that the Falash Mura immigration is definitely at an end and that definitely and certainly, no more Falash Mura immigrants will be allowed, or else that the budget had run out and the immigration was stopping, or that it had been renewed due to protests.

The Association of Jewish Federation in the United States raised $900,000 for the Falash Mura initially and voted in June 2005 to raise $100 million ref over three years for Falash Mura aliya and the continued integration of Ethiopians already in Israel. In July 2005, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) decided to increase its aid to Addis Ababa. The JDC gave $40,000 to help curb persistent hunger in the area.

Though some insist that Falash Mura are really Christians masquerading as Jews, there is no doubt about the commitment of many of these people to Israel, the Jewish people and Zionism. A 2003 article noted: 

   Feakdu Takle, 22, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia three years ago, and he has not seen his parents since. Takle, who just finished his army duty, said he is deeply frustrated that ``the state that I am defending" will not bring his parents to Israel.

     "This is our place. This is the home for all Jews and my parents are Jews," he says, his voice breaking into tears. "I will continue to struggle until all my family come home.''

     Returning to Ethiopia is not an option for Takle. Dressed in a tight T-shirt and low-slung jeans, he looks like a typical Israeli. And recently he give his baby daughter an Israeli name, Ora. (Pomeranz, Rachel, Getting into details on Falash Mura, JTA, November 26, 2003. ref )

Ami Isseroff

May 3, 2009

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Falashmura

Further Information: Ethiopian Jews


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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