AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Almost two years ago, with great fanfare, Israel ended a program that brought tens of thousands of Jewish Ethiopians to Israel to become citizens. Thousands of those families say the final airlift left their siblings and parents behind. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner went to Ethiopia to investigate.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I met Gezi Derebe in the one-room adobe hut that he shares with his mother and brother. As on many evenings when the power goes out, he pulls an acoustic guitar off a shelf.
This is a real guitar, like a...
GEZI DEREBE: Somebody brought for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)
WARNER: Though he's never been outside of Ethiopia, he sings to his family, not in his native Amharic but in Hebrew, an Israeli folk song.
DEREBE: (Singing in Hebrew).
WARNER: He sings, he says, to imagine that they're in Jerusalem. Behind him, on a wall kept cool by a mixture of cow dung and ash, is a laminated map of Israel. Above that are framed photos of his relatives already in Israel. And over his head is a question - will he ever get there himself?
DEREBE: (Singing in Hebrew).
WARNER: The story of Gezi's journey begins about 12 years ago when he was 8 years old and Gezi's family sold their farm and came to the city to join the waves of Ethiopian Jews being airlifted to Israel. He'd never seen a Torah scroll or been to a synagogue. They didn't have those in his village. But in Gondar, he enrolled in a school meant to prepare new immigrants to Israel run by the Jewish Agency for Israel and staffed by Israeli volunteers.
NAAMA AVITSUR: When he was in my class, he was brilliant.
WARNER: Naama Avitsur tells me he was not only her best student, fluent in Hebrew, but also her most grateful.
AVITSUR: So thankful for everything. He really cared about his Judaism.
WARNER: This Jewish education he received, that was unique in Ethiopia, strengthened his sense of his own Judaism. But then when he was a teenager, the same organization that had given him this education, informed him he would not qualify to go to Israel because he was not Jewish enough. One of his ancestors on the maternal side was Christian.
DEREBE: My grandmother's mother.
WARNER: Your grandmother's mother was not Jewish?
DEREBE: Yeah, only she.
WARNER: This at first seems peculiar because Israel has had a law since its founding that the most you have to prove to emigrate is that you have one Jewish grandparent - just one on either side. And Gezi would qualify. But Gezi is a very special case because he's part of a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted under pressure to Christianity in the 19th century. The Falash Mura secretly practiced Judaism, but they were not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a political compromise a decade ago. And even then, Israel did not approve them under the standard Law of Return, the rule that you have one Jewish grandparent. But under stricter religious law that says to be Jewish, you need an unbroken maternal Jewish line, Gezi's Christian great-grandmother disqualifies him.
DEREBE: Because of this we can't go there. We can't go to Israel.
WARNER: But Gezi has reason to think that what's holding him back is not centuries-old rabbinical law but rather the more mercurial dictates of politics. And to understand why he thinks that, we need to actually leave Ethiopia for a little bit and, with the help of NPR's Jerusalem bureau, go to a living room outside of Tel Aviv.
HABTU ABATA: (Speaking Hebrew).
WARNER: This is Habtu Abata. He's Gezi's cousin, and he's sitting on the couch in his apartment in Israel next to his father, his father whose twin sister is Gezi's mother. So according to biology, if Gezi is not Jewish enough to come to Israel, neither are they. So why were they allowed in 2003?
ABATA: (Through interpreter) The first immigrations were easier because at that time whoever wanted to come just came. Now there are many procedures to go through.
WARNER: Habtu's family thought they would come first, set things up and the rest of the family would follow. But by the time that Gezi and his brother and his mother applied, the mood toward Ethiopian immigrants in Israel had soured. Israel's economy was slowing. Ethiopian Jews, it seemed, required more welfare and social services than immigrants from other places.
Avraham Negusie is the only Ethiopian-born member of the Knesset, just elected last month. He says there was no official change in policy, but embassy staff in Addis Ababa seemed to start making it harder to pass the interview, making people go back five, six, seven generations.
AVRAHAM NEGUSIE: They go back to seven generations. They ask them to count seven generations in order to see whether they have, in the middle, non-Jews in that lineage.
WARNER: And he says in a place like Ethiopia, where there are few written documents and a history of anti-Semitism, it's difficult to prove sometimes the Jewish-ness of your great-great-great-great grandmother. He says that as Israel seemed to pinch the immigration pipeline, families were split. Community leaders say that there are 6,000 people in Ethiopia, like Gezi, who are Jewish on their father's side. Eighty percent of them, they say, have children or parents or siblings in Israel.
NEGUSIE: These people should be brought and reunited with their families. This is what we are asking.
WARNER: Yigal Palmor is a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the main organization in charge of coordinating Jewish immigration.
YIGAL PALMOR: The question is, where do you draw the line? Because any person has family members who in turn have other family members who in turn have yet more family members, then all of the Ethiopian population could see themselves as entitled to immigrate automatically to Israel.
WARNER: Officially, there are no more airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, though you can apply on a case-by-case basis. I asked Palmor about cases like Gezi, who speaks Hebrew, keeps kosher and as a result of the free Jewish education that he was provided by Palmor's agency, the Jewish Agency, thinks of himself as a Jew.
PALMOR: Yes, that's a very interesting case. That would be a very curious side effect of this operation.
WARNER: He says the Jewish Agency only assists with immigration. It doesn't decide any particular case. The Ministry of Interior, which does decide, has a committee that's looking into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families, although activists say that committee has been in existence more than a year without accepting or rejecting a single case.
Back in Gondar, the Jewish school that Gezi used to go to is closed. Most of his former classmates are in Israel. His cousin, Habtu, just got married. And Gezi feels like he's in limbo. His mother would like to give up on the Jerusalem dream and just go back to their village, but their farm is sold.
DEREBE: We don't have anything there. We sold everything. We all live here like - how to express? - it is bridge.
WARNER: It's a bridge?
DEREBE: Yeah, it's a bridge here.
WARNER: Before I leave the hut, I asked him to play one song in his native tongue, in Amharic, and he looked contrite. His teachers never taught him Amharic songs, he says, only Hebrew ones. Gregory Warner, NPR News.
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