The affair of the rejection of Ethiopian children by schools in Petah Tikva raises tough questions about the country's attitude toward those who arrived here via the Law of Return, with its various implications. Bringing the group called the "Falashmura" - whose members are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity - was controversial, but when the decision was made to bring them, it was necessary to prepare for their absorption and integration into Israeli society, without making things too difficult for them when it came to conversion.
Instead the opposite took place: Successive governments allowed the rabbinical establishment to pile up inhuman difficulties on the new immigrants from Ethiopia, making them traverse a humiliating "via dolorosa" of giyur lehumra (a pro forma conversion required in cases of doubt about one's Jewish heritage) and endless examinations of their lifestyles. Ostensibly, the immigrants were to have been granted conversion and a sense of belonging. In actuality, they found themselves permanently marked and excluded.
The distress of the Ethiopian immigrants is especially in evidence now, when it seems as though the sword of conversion no longer hangs above the head of every immigrant as an exclusive condition for acceptance. Many non-Jews from the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example, gave up on conversion in light of the difficulties involved, but have nonetheless had a positive absorption process thanks to their education and their ability to adapt. That is how worthy and proper "conversion" takes place, eroding the authority of the Orthodox hegemony.
The Ethiopian immigrants are not equipped with similar tools and are not capable of surmounting the obstacles placed before them by the state, which is constantly demanding that they prove their adherence to a religious lifestyle. The result: They are forced to register their children for religious schools. The atmosphere in the schools, and the ultra-Orthodox-nationalist heritage (which is suffused with racist elements in the first place) that typifies them, are foreign to the atmosphere and heritage to be found in the children's homes, undermine the authority of their parents and cause humiliation and agitation.
The right granted to the rabbinate to cancel conversions, which has only become stronger in recent years due to quarrels among rabbinical streams, turns the families of the immigrants into hostages in the hands of the establishment. The Petah Tikva affair revealed only a small portion of this ugly anomaly.
Israel owes the Ethiopian immigrants a basic correction: to enable them a conversion based on leniencies in the halakha (religious law) and the experience of a decent absorption. The Ethiopian immigrants are already here. They are Israeli citizens, and they are entitled to an egalitarian education in the school system of their choice - not only in the state religious schools - and to a normal life, without humiliating and threatening examinations.
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