Focus on Issues: Israel Decides, Amid Protests, to Aid Ethiopians, Speed Aliyah

In the face of a groundswell of public pressure, the Israeli government has decided to accelerate the immigration of Jews from Ethiopia who qualify for entry into Israel under the Law of Return.

At the same time, the government is standing firm on its refusal to recognize as Jews the group referred to as Falash Mura.

But it is authorizing the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish groups to provide limited humanitarian relief to the estimated 15,000 Falash Mura still hoping to come to Israel, many of whom are said to be languishing in hunger and poor health in Addis Ababa and towns in the Gondar region.

The plight of the Falash Mura — and as many as 4,000 other Ethiopians from the Kwara region whose Jewishness is not in dispute — surfaced as a major issue this week at the General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America.

On Tuesday, Ethiopian immigrants staged a massive protest outside the Jerusalem convention center where the 4,000-plus delegates from North America were meeting. Estimates of the crowd — many of whom traveled hours by bus to attend the rally — ranged from several hundred to 3,000.

Scores of uniformed police officers sealed off the main entrance of the convention center as the demonstrators, many wearing skullcaps, prayed, chanted slogans and waved brightly colored banners emblazoned, in Hebrew or English, with such messages as, “All Jewish Life Is Priceless” or “Reverse Discriminatory Policies.”

The largest banner, stretching several feet long, was spray-painted in black, English letters that read: “In Ethiopia, Jewish children are starving and dying today.”

Other signs of protest were buttons worn by members of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which read, “I Believe in the Ethiopian Dream.”

Disagreements over the Israeli government’s Ethiopian immigration policy also erupted at an afternoon session of the G.A. on Tuesday that was supposed to be devoted to the subject of the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants already in Israel — some of whom arrived close to 20 years ago.

Knesset member Adisu Massala, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, was addressing a packed room of some 100 convention delegates when an Ethiopian activist named Yafete Alemu, screamed out that Massala’s description of the Falash Mura as Christian converts was “not true.

“The truth is closed in front of your eyes!” exclaimed Alemu, who is a member of the activist group South Wing to Zion.

The moderator of the session restored calm by promising to set aside time at the end of the program for a full discussion of the issue. He lived up to his promise, and a passionate volley of conflicting positions ensued.

At issue is whether the Falash Mura deserve to immigrate to Israel. The Israeli government’s position is that Falash Mura are the descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity.

Some 2,800 Falash Mura were brought to Israel following Operation Solomon in 1991 under a special application of immigration law. But according to the Israeli government, neither they nor their relatives are covered by the Law of Return, which requires the immigrant to have at least one Jewish grandparent.

Last summer, Israel called on the JDC and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, an advocacy group, to close down their Ethiopian operations, because, it contended, all eligible immigrants had been evacuated.

Since that time, thousands of additional refugees have arrived at the Jewish organizational compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, in the hopes of making aliyah. As a result, NACOEJ continued to provide food and religious services. Many Falash Mura are now practicing Judaism.

Israel’s government claims that NACOEJ reneged on its agreement to close shop and has rained criticism on the organization in government meetings this week regarding the situation in Ethiopia.

Barbara Ribakove Gordon, NACOEJ’s director, said she plans to continue serving the needs of the estimated 15,000 refugees in Addis Ababa and Gondar until their immigration applications are processed.

In one recent meeting, Israeli government ministers announced that they would sanction Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the JDC and the UJA Federations of North America, to fund humanitarian aid for the refugees, but that the work on the ground must be handled by a third party, one with no connection to the Israel’s government.

Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman also said he expects the Israeli government to contribute to the effort.

Israel will also streamline its procedures for processing the immigration of Jews remaining in the Kwara and Gondar regions, who have been waiting to be cleared for aliyah for several years.

Much of the background about the situation in Ethiopia was explained in a pamphlet that the UJA Federations of North America distributed to all G.A. delegates at registration, in anticipation of the massive demonstration that took place Tuesday.

Ethiopian activist groups, in turn, distributed their own literature, including reports of the refugees’ abysmal living conditions and appeals for donations.

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