Falash Mura is the name given to the community of Ethiopians who practice the Jewish faith and claim the right to live in Israel. Every year, the city of Gondar hosts what is billed as the largest Passover celebration in the world. The Falash Mura community bakes and sews for days, preparing for the Jewish holiday. While thousands of other Falash Mura have been airlifted to Israel, for these devotees, the struggle to return to what they see as their spiritual homeland continues. Filmmaker Lior Sperandeo documents this Ethiopian “Jewish island” where people dream of immigrating to Israel. I spoke with him about his The People of project.
Who are the people you feature in your film?
In the local Amharic language, they are called the Falash Mura, “a man with no land.” These are Jews who in the 19th century were converted to Christianity and thus were not welcomed to Israel like the rest of Ethiopia’s Jewry. Falash Mura is not a nickname favored by the Jews of Ethiopia, but rather a moniker that stuck through time. Their dream is to immigrate to Israel, where they can practice a normal Jewish life.
Why did you choose to focus on this community?
I’ve heard about the Falash Mura’s struggle to return to their spiritual homeland long before going to Ethiopia, but the logic seemed sound: If they had chosen to convert and turn their backs on Judaism, why should they be allowed automatic citizenship in the Jewish state? It was only when I set foot in Gondar that I understood how wrong I was. I found myself in a beautiful ”Jewish island” in the middle of Africa, and I knew that a new journey was about to begin. This is another muted community with a story that has to be told.
What was the best part about the experience?
Changing my perspective on this matter. The stated reason for not allowing the Falash Mura to return to Israel is that they are not recognized as Jews. But after my visit I can testify that this is an absurd claim. In Gondar I found one of the most vibrant and dedicated Jewish communities that I have experienced. These are men and women who value their Jewish religion and traditions in the most genuine way. In 1950, Israel created the Law of Return, which gives all Jews and spouses of Jews the right to immigrate to and settle in Israel. This made me pause and ask myself, What is the real reason Israel won’t let them in? I’m not sure a Jewish community in any other continent [would] be treated this way. This is why I created this film, to shed more light on this matter in order to help this community to fulfill a dream.