JERUSALEM (Jan. 7)
Some, but not all, of the Ferris Mora, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, are likely to be admitted to Israel under a compromise plan taking shape in a Cabinet-level committee.
The committee, headed by Immigrant Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, is expected to create controversy, whatever it decides.
Opinion is sharply divided even within Israel’s Ethiopian immigrant community on whether to admit the Ferris Mora, whose numbers are estimated at between 25,000 and 50,000.
“There is no chance the committee will say none may enter Israel,” Tsaban told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week. “Nor is there any chance it will recommend admittance, under the Law of Return, for everyone claiming to be a Ferris Mora.”
Tsaban spoke after 10 rabbinic and academic scholars presented expert opinion to the ministerial body, whose members are due to make their recommendation to the full Cabinet next week.
Members of the committee include Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Interior Minister Arye Deri, Tourism Minister Uzi Bara and Justice Minister David Libai. Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a major player in the immigration process, is a non-voting member of the committee.
In an interview, Tsaban said a key problem is the definition of a Ferris Mora. If, for example, it means a first-degree family relationship with someone already in Israel, it would open the gates to a broad range of people who do not even claim to be Ferris Mora, but are closely related to someone who does.
About 2,000 Ferris Mora slipped through screening efforts and boarded planes in May 1991 when Operation Solomon airlifted most of Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel. Indeed, it emerged that the passengers included several hundred Ethiopians who are clearly Christian and make no claim to be anything else.
ETHIOPIAN IMMIGRANTS DIVIDED
About 4,000 Ferris Mora are now waiting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, hoping to be allowed to proceed to Israel. Some 2,800 are inside or closely attached to the Joint Distribution Committee compound there. Another 1,200 have gathered in the city, in the hope of eventual emigration to Israel.
Sources said American Jewish organizations active on this issue have now ceased encouraging Ferris Mora from outlying areas to sell their holdings and make their way to the capital.
Israeli differences of opinion on the issue are not along traditional Orthodox-secular lines. Indeed, some secular opinion strongly opposes a “liberal” policy toward Ferris Mora, while some Orthodox opinion favors precisely such a policy.
Polarization has also surfaced in the Ethiopian community. Many Ethiopian Israelis testified before the committee that the Ferris Mora were condemned as traitors by the mainstream Jewish community in their native country.
When the aliyah question first surfaced, they said, some Ferris Mora actively tried to thwart efforts by Jewish families to get to Israel, in some cases by reporting on them unfavorably to the authorities.
Sociologists say some Ethiopian Israelis, who are finding it hard enough to acclimate to Israeli society, feel an additional barrier of suspicion and alienation would be created by the advent of a large number of Ethiopians who, at least at present, are not properly Jewish.
Authorities apparently hope the 2,000 who slipped through in Operation Solomon will eventually meld into the broader mass of that aliyah.
On the other hand, some Ethiopians here have relatives and friends among the Ferris Mora. Many of them claim their exclusion is cruel and arbitrary, especially in view of the fact that 2,000 did get in.
The Ethiopian government is known to be hostile to any further large-scale emigration.
But if an Israeli government decision in principle creates an opportunity for such a move, it would probably be implemented over a period of years, presumably blunting opposition from the Ethiopian government.
Two rabbis who visited Ethiopia last year on behalf of the government came back with a recommendation that the Ferris Mora, whose number they estimated at no more than 30,000, be “returned to Judaism” while still living in Ethiopia, over a period of seven to 10 years, and then gradually brought to Israel.