Messianic Jews promote Ethiopian aliyaRuth Eglash 09/28/2008 02:44
'Post' learns Messianic Jewish Alliance of America active in far-flung villages of northern Ethiopia.
Under Operation Tikva, through which thousands of people in Ethiopia are provided with clean water, money for food and educational services, they are also reminded often that they are Jews and that the people of Israel are waiting for them. What makes Operation Tikva different than other Jewish aid programs in Ethiopia, however, is that neither the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel, nor any other recognized aliya organization is involved in it. In fact, The Jerusalem Post has learned it is a program run by Messianic Jewish missionaries, and very few people in Israel even know about it. It seems that while Israel has officially stopped encouraging the immigration of thousands of Ethiopians either via the Law of Return or the Law of Entry, other groups have taken up the task. These Messianic Jewish missionaries continue to be active in far-flung villages of northern Ethiopia, telling local farming communities there that God, Israel and the Jewish people are rooting for them, even though their ancestral link to Judaism is tenuous at best. Run by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), Operation Tikva is contravening the Israeli government's attempts over the last year to wind down official aliya operations in Ethiopia, and the project is being viewed in Jerusalem with alarm. "I don't believe that we are working against the Israeli government," MJAA General Secretary Joel Chernoff, told The Jerusalem Post in response Thursday. "The political situation in Israel can always change and we believe that what has happened to these people is a major injustice," he said. According to Chernoff there are between 50,000-70,000 Ethiopian Messianic Jews who are being discriminated against by the Israeli government based on their beliefs. Messianic Jews believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is their Messiah, but still consider themselves to be Jewish. Jews of other denominations do not consider Messianic Judaism to be a form of Judaism, but a form of Christianity. "These people are viewed by the government of Ethiopia and by their neighbors as Jews and are persecuted as such," argued Chernoff, adding that it all "boils down to the fact that Israel has decided not to accept Jews who believe in Jesus." "These people are clearly not Jewish and they are working in areas where none of the people are Jews either; everything they are telling these people are lies," said Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a member of the Public Council for Ethiopian Jews, which has successfully persuaded the Israeli government to continue checking the eligibility for immigration of a further 3,000 Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago) from the same region of Ethiopia. "This organization [the MJAA] and the people that it is working with in Ethiopia are in no way associated with the Falash Mura community currently waiting in Gondar for Israeli government approval to immigrate," said Waldman, adding that missionary activity in the area is not a new phenomenon. In contrast to the MJAA, the Public Council for Ethiopian Jews, which is made up of Israeli-based Ethiopian community members and politicians, maintains that only 8,700 Jews remain in Ethiopia who must be checked for aliya by Israel's Interior Ministry. Currently, the government's criteria for immigration to Israel is based on a 1999 census known as the Efrati list, as well as a maternal link to Judaism and relatives already living in Israel. Aveje Manhanei, who runs an Israeli-based Web community dedicated to preserving the traditions and culture of Ethiopian Jewry, told the Post, "If Israel does not put a stop to this activity as soon as possible then there will eventually be another 75 million Ethiopians demanding to make aliya." He said that a significant number of Ethiopian Israelis, specifically those who arrived here during Operations Moses (1984-5) and Solomon (1991) and are known as Beta Israel Jews, are "angered" over the activities of this Messianic organization both in Ethiopia and here in Israel. What has upset Manhanei and other community members the most is several short video clips that have been posted on the Internet - on the MJAA's official Web site and on YouTube - showing raggedly-dressed and poverty-stricken Ethiopian children who are labeled as Beta Israel Jews by the MJAA and whom the organization claims were left behind by the Israelis in the poor African country. An official from the movement, visiting a water-well site near Gondar donated by the organization, is seen and heard on the video as asking those gathered, "How many people here want to go home to Israel?" The following frame shows almost all of those present raising their arms. The official then adds: "We are doing our best for you here and in Israel." In another scene, MJAA representative Kokeb Gedamu, who refers to himself as a rabbi, says: "With God's help we can take these people home to Israel." "They are filling these people with empty promises," commented Waldman, who helped compile the Efrati list. Chernoff denied that his organization was giving these people false hope about a future in Israel, responding that "these people have a lot of hope that in the future it will be different and they will be accepted." The Prime Minister's Office said in a statement that it was not aware of such Jewish Messianic activities in the Gondar area but, following The Jerusalem Post's inquiry, it planned to check into the issue. A spokesman for the Jewish Agency said its role in the African country was not to determine who is eligible for aliya but rather to facilitate the immigration of those approved by the Israeli government. He said that the feeding centers and health clinics currently in Gondar were not under the Agency's control.