NEW YORK, Oct. 19 (JTA) – Hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv over the weekend to raise public awareness of the plight of thousands of their relatives they say remain stranded in Ethiopia. Organizers of the meeting appealed to Prime Minister Ehud Barak to personally intervene to bring the group of immigrant hopefuls – often referred to as Falash Mura – to Israel. “We called on the prime minister to personally intervene to bring the entire community here immediately,” said Avraham Neguise, director of the Ethiopian advocacy group, South Wing to Zion, that organized the conference. “The lists are ready, people have been checked,” he said, referring to a census Neguise says his group has compiled of members of the Falash Mura community living in what are universally recognized to be squalid conditions. The number of those waiting vary widely, with estimates ranging from 11,000 to 25,000. “If it wants, the government can bring them over now in a short amount of time,” Neguise said. Israel’s ability to mobilize immigration operations from Ethiopia has been proven numerous times: in mass airlifts in 1984 and 1991, in follow-up operations in the early 1990s and again this summer, when – largely due to pressure from American groups – about 1,400 more people were brought to Israel from the Kwara region of northern Ethiopia, most of them Jews who had been left behind in previous evacuations. The Israeli government’s position on the Falash Mura, however, is more complicated. Officially, Israel says that the arrival in Israel of the remaining Kwara Jews during the next few months will mark the end of Ethiopian aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Israel. Those still there, which Neguise and other advocates refer to as Beta Israel to stress their Jewishness, are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity. Most say they want to return to Judaism and are practicing Jewish rituals. Israel does not recognize the Falash Mura as Jews, even though several thousand were brought to Israel in the early 1990s as part of Operation Solomon in 1991. Since then, the number of Falash Mura seeking to immigrate to Israel has increased dramatically. Thousands have streamed into the urban centers of Gondar and Addis Ababa in what they hoped would be the first step in moving to Israel. Israel says that the only ones who would qualify to come would do so under the Law of Return, which holds that any person with one Jewish parent or grandparent is entitled to make aliyah. Falash Mura living in Israel who convert to Judaism can initiate immigration applications for family members in Ethiopia. Five Knesset members who attended Sunday’s gathering pledged to campaign in the Parliament for government action on the issue. “We have to make order of all this, and just send over large teams to review applications and determine who can come,” said Knesset member Avi Yehezkel of One Israel, who along with Eliezer Sandberg of Shinui, visited Addis Ababa and Gondar in August. At the gathering of more than 700 people in Tel Aviv, members of the Ethiopian community described conditions in those areas. Neguise said the people waiting there lack adequate food and medical supplies. He charged the Israeli government of a discriminatory policy with regard to Ethiopian aliyah. “We are not engineers, we are not doctors, we are not rich, we are poor,” Neguise said in an interview, adding that “color is playing a vital role” in the limited attention Israel is giving to processing immigration applications from Ethiopia. Avi Granot, Israel’s former ambassador to Ethiopia, denied that color had anything to do with the situation, saying that “we are not dealing with Jews” and, therefore, “racial discrimination is not a relevant argument from the start.” Tens of thousands of people “believe that just by claiming to be Falash Mura that would grant them the right of aliyah, which is not the case,” Granot, who currently serves as the minister for public and interreligious affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said in an interview. Having a Jewish parent or grandparent, even one who is a recent convert, he said, is the only way the Falash Mura now waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar can be considered for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return. Approving the relatives of the estimated 75,000 Israelis of Ethiopian origin, he said, is an “ongoing process.” According to advocates for the Falash Mura, applications of 150 families have recently been approved. Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, welcomed as a “positive change” the fact that the application process has started. Still, Gordon and others who have been following the situation are concerned about the suffering of the Falash Mura who are waiting for the chance to go to Israel. “Since we know they are doing some processing, shouldn’t we keep” those waiting “in the best possible state so that when they come they’re healthy, understand Judaism, understand Israeli society?” Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said in a telephone interview. Her organization, together with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, has actively worked to keep issues related to Ethiopian aliyah at the forefront of the Jewish communal agenda. But she is dismayed by what she sees as Israel’s recalcitrance on the Jewish status of the Falash Mura and a general lack of concern among North American Jewry. She said she finds it “unacceptable” that Israel would continue to process applications on a case-by-case basis, yet deny responsibility for the well-being of the Ethiopians gathered in the compounds. “Even if you say, Okay, this is a much bigger problem than anyone originally anticipated, we didn’t realize the complications of bringing that first group” of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, “still you have a humanitarian issue on your hands,” Kaufman said Monday, a day after talking with Granot at a meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in New York. As to the dire living conditions of the Falash Mura, Granot said, “The fact that there is great poverty in Ethiopia is true and the fact that many people desire to leave the country is true as well.” But he said there is no reason for Israel to distinguish between the Falash Mura and the “whole Ethiopian community.” In Israel, Neguise said Sunday’s gathering marked the start of a public campaign. “We consider this conference a new step in our just, Jewish and Zionist campaign to bring all of our brethren here. We will not stop until the last Jew is brought to Israel,” he said. Neguise said in an interview that his group soon plans to hold a large public demonstration and possibly a hunger strike. (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Israel contributed to this report.)
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