Panel Urges Letting Ferris Mora Come to Israel, but Not As Jews

After months of deliberations; a ministerial committee has made a landmark decision to recommend that Israel allow the immigration of the Ferris Mora from Ethiopia as individuals but not recognize them as Jews under the Law of Return.

The Ferris Mora, Ethiopians whose ancestors were Jews who converted to Christianity, are estimated to number between 20,000 and 50,000.

The committee, headed by Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, recommended that the Ferris Mora not be admitted as a group under the state’s Law of Return — which guarantees automatic immigration for Jews — but rather that they be admitted on an individual basis and according to such criteria as reunification with family members already in Israel.

At a news conference Tuesday, Tsaban refused to say how many people would be allowed to make aliyah under the proposal, but said he believed a large part of the community would be eligible under the suggested guidelines.

Leaders of the Israeli Ethiopian community expressed strong disappointment with the ministerial recommendation, which effectively said that the Ferris Mora should not be considered as Jews for the purposes of the Law of Return.

The committee did not, however, say whether the Ferris Mora are Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.

Members of the sect live as Christians but maintain ties to other family members and villagers who are Jewish.

Some 1,200 of them managed to board the planes to Israel during “Operation Solomon” in May 1991, when most of Ethiopia’s Jews were airlifted to Israel.

About 4,000 Ferris Mora are now waiting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, hoping to immigrate to Israel. Thousands more live in rural areas.

In reaction to the committee’s recommendation, the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization, an umbrella group, demanded that all Ferris Mora be allowed to make aliyah under the Law of Return. It claimed that Israel’s chief rabbinical council has recognized them as Jews.

FEARS OF BEING ‘FLOODED BY BLACKS’?

Adissu Messala, chairman of the association, stood outside the hall where the news conference was held and reacted bitterly to the news:

“If we are equal-rights citizens of Israel, we will not allow ourselves to be separated from our relatives. We will continue our struggle until the last Ethiopian Jew comes out of Israel, otherwise we will never feel like Jews ourselves,” he said.

Avshalom Elitzur of the Public Committee for the Ferris Mora accused the government of discrimination, claiming that the administration feared “the country might be flooded by blacks.”

Elitzur said the recommendations in effect constituted Zionist treason, since Israel was turning its back on Jews in distress.

He blamed Absorption Minister Tsaban for “running away” from the challenge of absorbing such a large number of Jews.

The ministerial committee, set up months ago to study the controversial issue, includes, besides Tsaban: Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, Interior Minister Arye Deri, Justice Minister David Libai and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, represented by his deputy, Yossi Beilin.

Although the committee believed that the Ferris Mora did not meet the requirements of the Law of Return as a group, it noted that some individuals may qualify.

Those individual Ferris Mora who are allowed to immigrate would not necessarily be considered Jews themselves and would not automatically be entitled to the usual benefits granted to new Jewish immigrants.

The committee rejected, however, proposals that Israel be officially involved in a reconversion of the Ferris Mora to Judaism. That idea was rejected partly out of concern that the Ethiopian authorities would object.

According to the proposed guidelines of family reunification, any child, spouse, parent or sibling of an Ethiopian in Israel would be allowed to make aliyah.

Tsaban said there were dozens of urgent cases to be resolved, such as children who had arrived on Operation Solomon two years ago but whose parents were left behind.

The Israeli consul in Addis Ababa, assisted by a special team of consular officials in the Gondar province, would select those Ethiopians eligible for immigration.

An advisory body, appointed by the interior minister and including representatives of both the relevant governmental authorities and the Ethiopian Jewish community, would have the power to expand the categories of eligible immigrants.

Under the ministerial proposal, family reunification could be extended to relatives of “different degrees of relationships, should their remaining in Ethiopia place them in isolation or in grave distress.”

In its news conference, the committee complimented the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for its efforts to assist some 2,800 of the Ferris Mora presently in Addis Ababa.

A spokesman for JDC in Jerusalem said that the organization would handle no new cases from Gondar, since the recommendations of the ministerial committee offered a systematic way of processing applicants for emigration to Israel.

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