NEW YORK, March 28 (JTA) — Israel is seeking $50 million from American Jewry to resettle thousands of Ethiopians seeking to immigrate to the Jewish state.
Tension over the handling of Ethiopia’s so-called Falash Mura has escalated between American Jewish leaders and Israelis in recent months, as an estimated 18,000 people wait in difficult conditions in Addis Ababa and Gondar, in hopes that they will be allowed to immigrate to Israel.
Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity. While some have embraced Judaism, all say they want to be reunited with relatives in Israel. Those in Addis Ababa and Gondar have left their homes and sources of income in smaller villages because they believe it is the only way their applications to immigrate to Israel will be processed.
That tension increased a notch last week when Israel’s minister of absorption, Yuli Tamir, said that there would be no effort to speed up what has critics have called a slow immigration process without the financial commitment from U.S. Jewry.
For their part, officials of Jewish organizations say there is support for aiding the Ethiopian immigrants, but they first want Israel to commit to speeding up the process.
In a sign of the increased concern among Americans, the Israel and Overseas Pillar of the United Jewish Communities — the newly formed umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations — recently created a small fact-finding committee that will meet with players on all sides of the issue, travel to Ethiopia and draft a report by July.
Asked his reaction to Israel’s request for $50 million, the committee’s head, Bob Reitman of Cleveland, said, “I like to put the horse before the cart. The first thing we have to do is understand the facts. Then we can engage on the question of should there be special funding options, or what other options exist.”
However Reitman noted that “one of the things world Jewry can take pride in is the fact that when we’ve identified problems that demanded solutions, we’ve provided.”
Ironically the debate over the Falash Mura comes at a time when American Jewish interest in Israel and overseas aid is said to be waning.
Although Israel expects the absorption of additional Ethiopians to be expensive, the conflict appears to be more about the eligibility of the Falash Mura than the costs of their absorption.
Unlike the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who were brought to Israel in the early 1990s under Operation Solomon, there is a lack of consensus about the status of the Falash Mura.
Israel does not recognize the Falash Muras’ claims to Judaism, but instead is determining their eligibility under the Law of Return. That law allows immigration for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, along with his or her spouse, children, grandchildren and their spouses.
Israeli officials are reviewing applications on a case-by-case basis. Israel is also concerned that the Falash Mura could bring an endless stream of impoverished, non-Jewish relatives into Israel.
Fewer than 200 Falash Mura have been brought to Israel since the beginning of the year.
Living conditions are poor at the compounds in Ethiopia where the would-be immigrants have gathered. While some humanitarian aid is offered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, advocates say it is inadequate.
However the JDC has said that providing better services would simply attract more Ethiopians to the compounds.
Federations around North America have raised the possibility of providing direct funding to address the humanitarian needs of those in Ethiopia.
But now, Israel is directly asking American Jewry to help absorb the costs of resettling those who do qualify for entry.
At a meeting last week with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — one week after the umbrella group held a closed-door session on the issue with Israel’s consul general in New York and its former ambassador to Ethiopia — Tamir, Israel’s minister of absorption, told American Jewish leaders that the government is divided over how to handle the matter.
She said the issue will be discussed “as soon as we can get to it,” but that the government is currently preoccupied with the peace process.
Tamir said she would speak with the JDC about the possibility of the organization providing more humanitarian assistance to those waiting in the compounds.
However Asher Ostrin, the JDC professional responsible for operations in Ethiopia, told JTA that he did not anticipate changing its services in response to such a request.
“At this point in time, we think we’re doing what should be done,” he said, adding that the solution lies less in humanitarian aid and more in Israel speeding up its processing so that Ethiopians know whether or not they can immigrate.
“The notion of pouring more resources in and creating a generation of people dependent on handouts from American organizations — where does it end?” asked Ostrin.
The death rate among the Falash Mura living in Gondar and Addis Ababa has decreased in recent months and is lower than among the general population in Ethiopia, according to the JDC.
Tamir told the Conference of Presidents that without funding commitments from American Jewry, she is reluctant to press her government colleagues to expedite the processing of the Falash Mura.
“Unless there’s a substantial commitment from abroad, I honestly don’t know where to put” the new immigrants, she said.
“If I bring them to Israel, I bring them to caravan sites and doom them to misery,” said Tamir. “Caravan sites are better than conditions in Addis Ababa and Gondar, but not much.”
Jewish organizational officials, however, returned the ball to Israel’s court, saying that while Israel should not be burdened with all the costs of absorption, until Israel expedites the process and decides who it will allow to immigrate, American Jews cannot mobilize a fund-raising campaign.
“I think American Jews would feel pride to help. But it has to come from Israel,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The perception is that there are those in Israel saying no, put this aside.”
Many who heard Tamir’s speech at the March 22 meeting of the Conference of Presidents, which also touched on other challenges in absorption, sensed a shift in attitude of a minister who had previously expressed sympathy for the Falash Mura, and an indication that Ethiopians are being treated differently than others seeking to immigrate to Israel.
“She clearly gave the impression that she would be reluctant to bring them to Israel,” Ted Friedman, a board member of Americans for Peace Now, said after the meeting. “American support is not a precondition for anyone coming from the former Soviet Union, and it wasn’t a precondition for the Yemenites before them.”
Lisa Schachner, North American coordinator for American Friends of South Wing to Zion, a group pressing Israel to bring over the Falash Mura, said she was disappointed with Tamir’s comments, seeing them as a change from earlier statements.
Schachner questioned whether it was fair to say the compounds in Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, are no worse than temporary caravan sites in Israel.
“In Israel there’s hope. In Ethiopia they’re languishing and sitting in limbo,” she said.
“We’re getting mixed messages from Israel and as long as that goes on American Jews will stay frozen,” she said. “If Israel says we’re processing them, please give them humanitarian relief and help us with absorption, then I think American Jews will open their pockets.”