PHILADELPHIA, April 5 (JTA) — Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky is set to visit Ethiopia this weekend in a step that could help determine the future of those waiting there to immigrate to Israel.
Sharansky’s ministry is responsible for determining the eligibility of prospective immigrants under the Law of Return. He must deal with the controversial issue of 26,000 Falash Mura — descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity — who wish to come to Israel.
“The purpose of Sharansky’s trip is his desire to see the situation on the ground and then to determine, together with” the Jewish Agency for Israel, “what logistics will be necessary to determine the eligibility under the Law of Return of those individuals claiming the right to be brought to Israel,” wrote Mike Rosenberg, director general of JAFI’s Immigration and Aliyah Department, in an e-mail to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.
“I imagine that he will also use the opportunity to learn about the Falash Mura issue,” added Rosenberg, who will be traveling to Ethiopia late Saturday night with Sharansky and other ministry officials.
Some 18,000 Falash Mura are living in squalid conditions near compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar operated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, an organization that has been pushing Israel to speed up the application process.
Supporters of the Falash Mura complain that officials at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa are refusing to accept and evaluate immigration applications. They also note that many Falash Mura in Ethiopia are practicing traditional Judaism and waiting for a chance to prove they are eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return, which requires applicants to have at least one Jewish grandparent.
Several Knesset members and Ethiopian activists have criticized the Israeli government for implementing what they claim is a discriminatory practice: The only way for Falash Mura to apply for aliyah has been through a relative in Israel.
Israeli officials have maintained that this is the most effective route for determining eligibility, since it is almost impossible for those in Ethiopia to provide documentation proving their eligibility under the Law of Return.
However, late last month, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to provide a schedule for accepting and processing immigration applications in Ethiopia. A subsequent hearing is scheduled to take place later this month. Activists monitoring the situation say that fewer than 200 Falash Mura have been brought to Israel this year.
“I am concerned about the team that Sharansky is taking over,” said Kenneth Kaiserman, president of NACOEJ. “We are worried that there might be something of an anti-Falash Mura bias. We would like to make sure that he talks to NACOEJ people while he’s there.”
As of press time, it was unclear whether Sharansky would meet with NACOEJ officials or Falash Mura leaders during his trip to Ethiopia.
In his e-mail, Rosenberg stated his objection to bringing all of the Falash Mura to Israel, but added his support for speeding up the application process.
This “should be done as soon as possible,” he wrote. “I will therefore continue to encourage the Ministry of the Interior to act speedily in making the determination as to who is eligible and who is not.” — Jewish Exponent