JERUSALEM (Jan. 7)
The Cabinet decided today to admit 100 Vietnamese refugees to Israel as a symbolic humanitarian gesture aimed at influencing other countries to take similar action. It also discussed the increasingly urgent problem of the Falashas, the Jews of Ethiopia, who are seeking to come to Israel, but no decisions, if any, were announced. Some 150 Falashas demonstrated outside the Prime Minister’s Office while the Cabinet was in session, calling for the government’s help to bring their persecuted brethren out of Ethiopia to Israel.
The decision on the Vietnamese was announced by Cabinet Secretary Arye Naor. He stressed that it was a symbolic act for other nations to follow. “We remember the experience of our brethren during World War II who were seeking in vain for shelter,” he told reporters. He said that if the Vietnamese wished to apply for Israeli citizenship they would be welcome to do so.
There are presently some 5000 Vietnamese refugees who have spent the past several weeks aboard two freighters, one in Manila and the other anchored off Hong Kong. A government chartered plane will fly to Manila shortly to airlift the 100 selected refugees. A committee composed of the directors general of various ministries is making the technical arrangements, Naor said.
The government was apparently spurred to act by “peace pilot” Abie Nathan who has been conducting a world-wide campaign on behalf of the refugees from Vietnam. Nathan mode a formal request to the government last week to admit 400 of the refugees from the ship in Manila. He said that several Dutch philanthropists had pledged $200,000 to pay for the airlift. Nathan received today’s Cabinet decision with mixed feeling. He said he had hoped that all 400 would be admitted to Israel but since the number was limited to a token 100 he would try to persuade various European governments to receive the others.
Naor insisted that there was “no connection” between Nathan’s initiative and the Cabinet’s decision. He said the issue had been raised at a Cabinet meeting about two months ago and referred also to a Parliamentary question on the subject by two Likud MKs six weeks ago. He said Nathan was “a good citizen” but appeared to disparage the “wide publicity” that, he said, Nathan had secured for his activities on behalf of the Vietnamese refugees.
The Cabinet vote was 11-2 with four abstentions, according to Naor. Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu Hatzeira of the National Religious Party and Housing Minister Gideon Patt of Likud voted against the airlift on grounds that Israel should not become involved in a refugee problem that was beyond its ability to solve. Three of the four abstaining were Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon. The fourth minister abstaining was not identified. The majority of the Cabinet, however, felt Israel should set a moral example in this instance.
THE PROBLEM OF THE FALASHAS
The problem of the Falashas is more troublesome to the government. According to reports from Ethiopia, the Falashas have been the principal victims of the internecine warfare in that country since Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974 and replaced by a military regime. Their communities have been pillaged, hundreds, if not thousands, have been massacred and thousands more sold into slavery, according to the reports.
In 1975, the Israeli rabbinate decided that the Falashas, who are Black, are legitimate Jews. But their spokesmen here charge, little effort was made to bring them to Israel. Meanwhile, the Israeli government supported the Ethiopian government in its war with the Arab-backed Somalis, they say.
Premier Menachem Begin met with leaders of the Falasha community in Israel last Friday. He told them that the government regarded the Falashas as Jews and expressed the hope that all will eventually immigrate to Israel. But for the time being, he urged them to keep a low profile in their campaign. The Falasha leaders rejected this. They charged that neither the government nor the Zionist institutions had done much to rescue Ethiopian Jews.
The demonstrators today shouted in Amharic: “Begin, hear our voice and save our brothers.” They waved signs saying “S-O-S” and “Begin Let My People Come. One demonstrator told porters, “We have done our share. We served in the army and now we want our families and people The Israel government should assist as justice ### Jews all over the world.”
Burg, for his part, called the demonstration “an inexplicable incitement.” He said there was no religious reason why the Falashas could not immigrate to Israel and that, in fact, all who wanted to could have come when the political situation allowed it. Absorption Minister David Levy said the government “did, is doing and will continue to do” everything on behalf of Ethiopian Jews. He said he could not elaborate. Nathan, meanwhile, said the Falashas were next on his list of priorities. He said he would try to get permission to go to Ethiopia and bring them back to Israel.
JEWISH AGENCY STATEMENT ON THE FALASHAS
Last week, the Jewish Agency issued the following statement in response to charges by Falasha activists that it had been remiss in dealing with the plight of Ethiopian Jews.
“Without going into details of the possibilities of aliya of Ethiopian Jews in the past, the Jewish Agency hereby clarifies that even during the period of the previous regime, that of Emperor Haile Selassie, the policy of the Ethiopian government was against Falasha aliya, because the regime saw them as Ethiopian citizens in every way and therefore saw their future in Ethiopia. The few Falashas who did leave left in order to study abroad, and with a view to returning there.
“Regarding the more recent period according to the rulings of the Chief Rabbis of Israel, there is no doubt that the Falashas are Jews and that the Law of Return applies to them. Therefore, the Jewish Agency deals with them in the same way that it deals with any other Jewish community.
The present internal situation in Ethiopia, international circumstances, the cutoff of ties between Israel and Ethiopia, and other factors are all of course, causes that make dealing with Falasha aliya especially difficult. For those reasons, too the Jewish Agency is not prepared to respond to reports and recent publications in the media regarding this issue.”