10-27-2016  11:22 pm      •     

GONDAR, Ethiopia (AP) -- Sitting in a leaky, flyblown hut, a few dozen Ethiopian villagers are anxiously waiting to be transported to another world.
They have just been given word that their years of waiting are over, and that soon they will make a 2,000-mile (3,220-kilometer) journey by land and air with what is probably the last wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.
In doing so, they join generations of Jews who have immigrated to the Promised Land. But they are flying into the teeth of a dilemma that touches the heart of Israel's founding philosophy.
For people like 48-year-old Abe Damamo, his wife and eight children, wrenching change awaits.
Like most Ethiopians with Jewish roots, they have come from the Gondar region of northern Ethiopia. Their remote village uses donkeys for transportation and has no bathrooms. Damamo has no formal education and speaks no language but his own.
He is moving to an industrialized democracy where he will have to learn Hebrew, master a cell phone, commute to work and find his place in a nation of immigrants from dozens of countries ranging from Argentina to Yemen, Australia to the United States.
But to him, being Jewish is all that matters. "I am so happy to go and live my religion," he says through a translator.
Not everyone at the Israeli end is happy, however.
In the initial stages of an immigration that began three decades ago, all the Ethiopians immigrating to Israel were recognized outright as Jews. But those now seeking to make the trip are the so-called Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity, the main Ethiopian faith, at the end of the 19th century to escape discrimination.
Initially Israel balked at accepting their claim of Jewishness, but relented after American Jews led a campaign for the Falash Mura.
Some 40,000 moved to Israel, a country of 7 million, joining the 80,000 already there. But their presence has touched off a fierce debate in Israel over where to draw the line.
Ethiopians with any hope, however faint, of eligibility for Israeli citizenship have descended on camps in the city of Gondar, scrambling to prove their Jewishness. Men in prayer shawls sway back and forth in makeshift synagogues and children in skullcaps sit on mud floors learning the Hebrew alphabet and Jewish holidays.
But centuries of intermarriage and a lack of documentation have made it extremely difficult to prove who is a Jew, and the group awaiting their flight to Israel last month were supposed to be among the last, because the Israeli government has decided that the influx must stop.
Those lucky enough to meet the criteria for immigration will have to undergo conversion to Orthodox Judaism after arriving in Israel.
Sixty-six-year-old Tegabie Jember Zegeye's application was rejected long ago, his links to Judaism deemed too remote. But he has been living with his wife and five children in a Gondar camp for 10 years. He wears a skullcap and attends daily prayers and religion classes.
"When I left my village I didn't think I would be here for 10 days," he says, adding that he has close relatives in Israel who he feels are a part of him. "How can you split a man into two halves?"
He says he feels Jewish at heart. But when asked about his previous lifestyle, he replies: "I lived like a Christian, like all the Jews."
Besides cutting to the heart of the age-old debate over who is a Jew, the dispute between the Israeli government and the American Jewish activists who finance the Gondar camps raises uncomfortable questions about a central tenet of Israel's founding philosophy.
Israel's Law of Return guarantees citizenship for any Jew in need, and these days the country is especially concerned about boosting its Jewish population to compete with the Arabs. But the Ethiopians have proved the hardest immigrant group to absorb, and the Falash Mura, some critics feel, is pushing the limits.

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