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The New Converts

cgAnshel Pfeffer, writing for Common Ground News Service, 3-9 December 2009

JERUSALEM – Twelve thousand Ethiopians live around a compound in the city of Gondar. They left their villages for a promise of a better life in a new country. The compound is operated through the contributions of American Jews and the Ethiopians are taught Jewish customs by teachers flown in from Israel. None of them are Jews. Before reaching the compound, they never met a Jew in their lives. But if all goes according to the plan, they will undergo mass conversion and become Israeli citizens. This is part of a plan to swell the ranks of Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Demographers may argue over the actual date but the reality is irreversible: low numbers of immigrants and the discrepancy between Jewish and Palestinian birth-rates will lead to a situation at some point in the not too distant future where Jews are no longer the majority in the territory encompassing Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This is one of the main reasons that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution.

However, the strategy of some rabbis and right-wing politicians, desperate to hold on to the biblical homelands of Judea and Samaria, is to find other Jews who are willing to move to Israel.

Two decisions made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai in recent weeks are a case in point. One was the order to send back the government officials who examined the eligibility of Ethiopian citizens for emigration to Israel. A previous cabinet decision had been to end the emigration of the Falashmura, a group who believe they descended from Jews and were coerced to convert to Christianity. Yishai overturned that decision, potentially opening the way for tens of thousands of more Ethiopians to move to Israel, undergo a conversion to Judaism and become Israeli citizens. The second was Yishai’s authorisation of the emigration of over 7,000 citizens of the north-eastern Indian provinces Mizuram and Manipur to Israel. This is the same Yishai who has been the most strident opponent of allowing non-Jewish guest workers and their children to remain in Israel. Behind the scenes are a number of right-wing movements whose main objective is to bring millions of new Jews to Israel.

Since its foundation and until the end of the 1990s, Israel absorbed huge waves of immigration, but today, over ninety percent of the Jews still living outside Israel are citizens of western democracies who have no desire to move to Zion. Emigration from these countries is less than ten thousand a year. Barring an unforeseeable catastrophe or outbreak of anti-Semitism in North America, few believe that Israel will ever see another wave of mass immigration. Thus a quest for new reservoirs of Jews has gone into high gear and is likely to yield immigrants from unexpected places.

The legend of the 10 tribes of Israel, the biblical kingdom, conquered by the Assyrians in 733 BC, who were dispersed throughout the world but will one day return to the fold, was once a romantic notion. Every report of a tribe living in some far-flung corner of the globe, lighting candles on Saturday and eschewing pork fired the imagination. Lobbyists for their immigration still manage to peddle this romantic vision to the Israeli media, but by the religious right, they are seen today as a tool for preventing territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

Another potential demographic reservoir are the descendants of Spanish Jews who were forced to convert by the Inquisition 500 years ago. Some estimate their numbers at over a hundred million.

Israel’s Law of Return granting every Jew and the child or grandchild of a Jew automatic citizenship was a direct reaction to the Nazi racial laws and the centuries when persecuted Jews could not find sanctuary. Today it is being used for different purposes and the interior minister is free to interpret and enforce the law almost at will. Yishai, chairman of Shas, totally identifies with the aims of the rabbis who operate the conversion centres for these prospective citizens.

Israel has allowed its most fundamental citizenship law to be hijacked by a narrow political and religious lobby. There is an urgent need for new legislation on this matter that is not so easily manipulated by political and religious interests and that will take into account also divided Palestinian families and the hundreds of thousands of guest workers and their children and the refugees being smuggled in from the Egyptian border. Legal guidelines of eligibility for citizenship have to be specified.

As the world’s only Jewish state, Israel has a right to include affinity with the Jewish people as a consideration when granting citizenship, but the process must become more transparent. In order to determine its borders, Israel must also decide what it means to be a citizen.


* Anshel Pfeffer is a correspondent for the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 03 December 2009
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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