Israel's chief rabbis said Wednesday there is no room for negotiation over the issue of ritual conversion for the country's Ethiopian immigrants, despite continued protests by hundreds of the new arrivals who consider the requirement a degrading slur on their Jewishness.
"There are things that the law decides definitely," the chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Avraham Shapira, said at a news conference. "There is no place for negotiation. There is no compromise here. If it's a law, then it's a law, and it's not for people who do not deal with Jewish law to decide."
On Tuesday, hundreds of recent Ethiopian immigrants halted what was to be a 100-mile protest march from "absorption centers" in the north to Ben-Gurion Airport after officials promised that they could air their grievances at a meeting with Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Peres' spokesman, Uri Savir, said the prime minister will meet both of the country's chief rabbis and representatives of the Ethiopian immigrants in the coming days. Savir described Peres as "very aggravated" over the situation and added, "I'm sure there will be a fast solution."
Meanwhile, Israel radio reported that about 100 Ethiopians staged a sit-in at the offices of the rabbinate in Hadera, north of Tel Aviv, on Wednesday. And several dozen more who had apparently not gotten the word about the planned meeting with Peres held a vigil on the grass outside the airport. Hundreds of other Ethiopian Jews have held hunger strikes.
The protesters object to a requirement by the Chief Rabbinate that they undergo immersion in a ritual bath to confirm their Jewishness before being allowed to marry or divorce.
In Israel, there is no civil marriage or divorce; by law, jurisdiction over all such matters belongs to rabbinical authorities.
There are about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, more than half of whom arrived last winter as part of a secret airlift from Sudan dubbed "Operation Moses;" they had earlier fled their homes in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians say they are descendants of a lost tribe separated from mainstream Judaism for 2,000 years, and they cite Israel's Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to any Jew who asks for it.
However, the chief rabbis said Wednesday that some of the Ethiopians may have intermarried, a concern because Jewish law here is particularly stringent regarding intermarriage.
Commented the Sephardic chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu: "To our sorrow, because of the separation between them (the Ethiopian refugees) and the mainstream of Jewish life, there is a problem of intermarriage. Gentiles, Catholics mixed with them, even though most of them stayed away from non-Jews and didn't even touch non-Jews. But some of them did intermarry, and one of their current leaders is married to a Catholic."
"Since I don't know the exact status of every one of them, we obligate them to accept the rabbinic laws and to undergo immersion," Eliahu said. Undergoing ritual conversion will ensure that the Ethiopian immigrants are "able to mix freely with the rest of the Jewish nation."
The chief rabbis contend that most of the newcomers are willing to go along with their ruling but that the issue is being blown up by young, Marxist-influenced "inciters" among the Ethiopians.
Ethiopian Jewish activists say that about 200 of the new immigrants have been denied permission to marry, including more than 20 pregnant young women. "This is a real cruelty," said Rachamin Elazar, secretary of the National Council for Ethiopian Jews.
In an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, he explained, "They have lived in Ethiopia under the present (Marxist) regime and they're a little more militant and demanding because while they were there, there were all kinds of underground activities against the regime."
The controversy over the Ethiopians has added fuel to already rancorous divisions in Israel between religious and secular Jews.
"Rabbis in earlier centuries, when Orthodoxy reigned supreme, would have deliberately closed their eyes even to outright heresy if by doing so they could bring straying sheep back to the fold," the Jerusalem Post said in an editorial Wednesday. "But Rabbis Shapira and Eliahu assert their clerical authority by adhering to rigidly dogmatic rules of exclusion."
The newspaper called for action to "remove the humiliation inflicted on the Ethiopian Jews who came here in Operation Moses" and added, "At stake is nothing less than Israel's standing as the land of in-gathered Jewish exiles."
Haaretz carried a cartoon showing Ethiopian Jews standing at the door of an arriving El Al jetliner. But there are no stairs leading down to the tarmac. Instead, a rabbi is beckoning the passengers to jump out into a ritual bath.
At a stormy session of the Israeli Parliament that stretched into the early hours Wednesday, Immigration Minister Yaacov Zur urged the rabbinate "to negotiate immediately with the immigrants from Ethiopia without casting any stain on their Jewishness."