For the first time ever, a contestant from Ethiopia will participate in this year’s International Bible Contest in Israel. But Sintayehu Shifaraw, an 18-year-old from Addis Ababa whose father lives in Israel, will have to leave the country once the contest is over in April because he is not considered Jewish enough to qualify for Israeli citizenship.
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Since its inception 60 years ago, the bible contest, held in Jerusalem, has become a hallmark of Israeli Independence Day celebrations, drawing contestants from close to three dozen countries around the world.
It is attended by the prime minister and education minister, and is broadcast live on television. The youth contest (there is also one for adults) is open to teenagers aged 14 to 18, and a total of 74 contestants compete each year, including four from Israel.
Shifaraw will not only be the first representative from Ethiopia. He will also be the first member of the global Ethiopian-Jewish community – based largely in Israel today – to compete.
Shifaraw belongs to a community known as the Falashmura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were pressured to convert to Christianity in past centuries. The Falashmura are not considered eligible for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, unlike members of most other Jewish communities worldwide. Bringing the community to Israel, therefore, requires special government approval. Numerous such decisions have been passed over the years, each subject to a quota. When the Falashmura arrive in Israel, they undergo symbolic conversions to Judaism.
Shifaraw’s father moved to Israel in 2001 with his second wife. At the time, he was not permitted to bring along his children from his first wife. The couple now has several of their own children and live in the central Israel city of Or Yehuda.
“The case of the Shifaraw family exemplifies so much that is wrong with the government’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews,” said MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. Born in Ethiopia, Nagosa has played an active role in lobbying the government to bring more members of the community to Israel.
“No other Jewish community suffers such discrimination,” he said.
Members of the Falashmura community are only approved for immigration to Israel if they have immediate family in the country. Interior Ministry officials periodically visit Ethiopia to determine eligibility.
A Interior Ministry source speculated that Shifaraw might not have been allowed to join his father when he moved to Israel because his father was most probably eligible through his second wife, who was recognized as Jewish. Such eligibility, the source explained, cannot be transferred by a parent to children from a previous marriage.
The source suggested, however, that Shifaraw’s participation in the International Bible Contest might confer special status upon him, exempting him from the usual criteria that must be fulfilled in order to immigrate to Israel.
Shifaraw’s participation in the contest required a special invitation from the Jewish Agency, which is in charge of overseas contestants. To determine who would represent Ethiopia, three rounds of competition were held in the sub-Saharan state, because the first two ended in a draw.
“We are very excited to see that Sintayehu will be coming to Israel to compete in the competition, just like any other Jewish teen,” said Alisa Bodner, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. “However, unlike those teens, he will be required to return back to his home country because the Jewish community in Ethiopia is treated differently.”
In 2015, the government voted to bring the remaining members of Ethiopia’s Falashmura community – estimated then at around 9,000 – to Israel over a period of five years. But a year later, reportedly because of budget cutbacks, it reneged on its commitment and voted instead to bring over only 1,300 members of the community – all during 2017. The 7,700 remaining Falashmura in Ethiopia are stuck there until the government approves a new quota.
In response to a request for comment, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad noted that Shifaraw’s father had submitted an application to reunify the family last May. “His application was not taken into account in the last government decision, and when a new government decision is passed it will be considered,” she said.