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A thousand demonstrators were gathering outside, preparing to march on the Prime Minister's Office. Their cries were barely audible in the large office. "This time it's really going to be over," predicted the senior official confidently. "We're putting an end to the Falashmura operation and no pressure can change that."

The next six months are going to see a traumatic and even bloody confrontation between those in the Ethiopian community in Israel, who support the continued immigration of Falashmura, and the government, determined to bring the controversial project to a close. Already, it is starting to resemble a clash between two immovable objects. The Ethiopians are convinced the government is discriminating against their family members by blocking their entry. The government and Jewish Agency feel they have already gone out of their way to bring in tens of thousands of non-Jews who were ineligible for citizenship to begin with.

Give me your tired, your poor

The clashes between police and demonstrators on Tuesday were only a mere taste; it will, most likely, get a lot more violent as the cut-off date in six months grows closer. The departure of the last authorized group of Falashmura from the transit point in Gondar could well resemble the scenes on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. But the drama and the media manipulation that will no doubt take place on both sides will most likely obscure the fact that fundamental issues of Israel's national identity are at stake here. What are the limits of Jewish identity and eligibility for citizenship? Does Israel have a special obligation to assist the poor and downtrodden of the world, no matter how tenuous their connection to the Jewish people, or even if they have no connection whatsoever?

Those leading the campaign to allow thousands more Falashmura to enter the state are trying to put it very bluntly: How is it, they ask, that the only immigrants Israel has ever imposed a quota on are black? And when we're inundated by reports of "neo-Nazi" teenagers, who arrived from the former Soviet Union here with their families through the Law of Return, attacking children on the street and scrawling swastikas on synagogue walls, the question becomes even more poignant. Why are they let in? Just because their grandfathers might have been Jews, while the Falashmura, who are willing to undergo an Orthodox conversion and become loyal Israeli citizens, are no longer welcome.

The government answer is simple. As it is, over 30,000 Falashmura have already been brought to Israel, at a considerable cost to taxpayers, despite the fact their forefathers converted to Christianity centuries ago. Not only have they not been discriminated against, but, on the contrary, never before has Israel granted citizenship en masse to such a large number of people who lacked eligibility.

A distant link

Their historic connection to the Jewish people is questionable. According to reliable reports, hundreds of them, even after arriving in Israel, remain devout Christians and the Ethiopian church in Jerusalem has never been so full on Sundays. Anyway, if they were forced to convert by their neighbors all those years ago, then we should also be granting citizenship to the many millions of descendants of the marranos, Jews who were forced to convert by the Spanish Inquisition, living today throughout Latin America.

Perhaps, answer Falashmura supporters. But only a handful of marrano great-great-great grandchildren are interested in their Jewish roots, and still fewer would like to live in Israel. Tens of thousands of Falashmura are clamoring to return to the Jewish fold and live in the Promised Land. Well, yes, but one doesn't have to be extremely cynical to see another reason for that. A marrano family living comfortably in New Mexico or Texas might not be that interested in uprooting themselves to the Middle East; between life in an Ethiopian village and an absorption center in Israel, there's probably less competition.

How much of an advantage does distant Jewish ancestry, some as far as six or seven generations ago, confer on the Falashmura when hundreds of Sudanese, Eritrean and Congolese refugees are illegally crossing into the Negev each month?

No easy answers

To some this might seem a shocking question. How can one dare to compare the two groups: The Falashmura are "almost" Jewish and these border crossers are not. Lumping the two groups together simply because they both have black skin is downright racist. Perhaps, but there is an interesting point both groups have in common. This summer, when the Sudanese started arriving in large numbers and the authorities had no idea where to put them or how to feed them, various Jewish-American organizations criticized the government for failure to address the issue, even intimating that a latent racism in Israeli society was to blame and that, naturally, we expected better from a nation that came through the Holocaust.

Behind the scenes, there were even threats that philanthropic money usually meant for Israeli causes would be directed instead to alleviating the refugees' situation. We're hearing a similar tune from more or less the same direction in the argument over the Falashmura. It seems that some American Jews are so in love with the currently fashionable concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, that they expect Israel to step up and solve the problems for them.

In June 1977, one of Menachem Begin's first decisions as prime minister was to grant citizenship to a group of Vietnamese boat people. It was a moment to make any Jew proud, a nation of Holocaust survivors giving succor to others, but it was still only a symbolic gesture, helping just a drop in the ocean of Vietnamese misery. Helping a few dozen refugees made no difference to the budget or Israeli society. With the Falashmura we are talking tens, potentially hundreds, of thousands of people. There simply doesn't seem to be a morally acceptable solution either way, save for falling back on the Law of Return, with all its faults, as our guideline.