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Announcement on Ethiopians raises hopes for potential emigres

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NEW YORK, June 17 (JTA) — For the 3,500 Ethiopians desperate to resettle in Israel, new hopes have been sparked that the wait may soon be over. A decision by an Israeli ministerial committee last week could lead to the closure of the Falash Mura transit compound in Addis Ababa and the speeded-up immigration to Israel of the people based there. Many have languished for years waiting to join the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel in 1991 in Operation Solomon. The Committee on Diaspora and Absorption, headed by Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, declared last week that the camp should be closed and all the people there should be brought to Israel. But the declaration had no timetable or funding mechanism attached to it and its practical impact is clouded in ambiguity. A spokesman for Sharansky said the rate of immigration will depend upon the cooperation of the Ethiopian government and the resources that can be allocated for the effort. In a sign that the decision could mark a breakthrough, however, the Jewish Agency for Israel has already begun consultations with the Israeli government to determine what its role should be. The agency, which is responsible for bringing immigrants to Israel and for their initial absorption, transported the Ethiopians in historic airlifts. The United Israel Appeal, which funnels money from the United Jewish Appeal and local federations to the Jewish Agency, last week sent a confidential memo to federation leaders alerting them to developments. “If there is going to be a change in the status” of the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa, “we know it will probably require monies for non- planned, non-budgeted activities,” Shoshana Cardin, UIA chair, said, explaining the memo. For their part, the Falash Mura have been sustained at the Addis compound by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. But their immigration has been slowed by Israeli government efforts to determine the Jewish status of each of the Falash Mura, who converted to Christianity but never integrated into the rest of society. By many accounts, they lead observant Jewish lives at the compound. Still, there have been disputes over Israel’s responsibility for them and for tens of thousands of others who say they are Falash Mura living elsewhere in the country. Roughly 100 Ethiopians a month have been streaming into Israel in recent months, with about half from the compound and the other half from other places, according to the North American Conference. In compliance with the policies of the previous government, those who could prove their Jewish origin have been brought to Israel under the Law of Return, and, in fewer instances, under the Law of Entry in cases of family reunification. The recent declaration by the Sharansky committee does not make clear how that policy will be changed. “There is some ambiguity” regarding the decision, said a spokesman for the North American Conference, who asked not to be named. But what is clear, he said, is “nobody’s talking about a massive airlift. The Ethiopian government wouldn’t allow it.” “The decision is not clear,” echoed Avraham Neguise, the director of South Wing to Zion, an Ethiopian advocacy group in Jerusalem. He said the decision appeared to indicate a new willingness to determine that the community was eligible en masse to come to Israel, rather than determining their eligibility on a painstaking, individual basis. “But it is one thing in principle,” he said. “It has not been tested in practice.” The measure, he said, has to be approved by the full Cabinet. And if it is, he said, he worried it would get bogged down by the bureaucracy and politics of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the processing. Indeed, Sharansky’s spokesman appeared to contradict Neguise’s understanding of a blanket acceptance by saying that a committee would review the immigrants’ eligibility. Michael Schneider, JDC executive vice president, put the announcement into perspective by saying it is not the first time that hope loomed for those waiting in Addis. “These things have been said before,” he said. Nonetheless, “we are more optimistic than before that action will be taken
soon.”

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