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Falash Mura backers reject new report

NEW YORK, March 22 (JTA) — The expedited aliyah of Ethiopia’s Falash Mura has encouraged more would-be immigrants to crowd into miserable shantytowns around the Israeli Embassy and Consulate there, according to a new report by the United Jewish Communities.

The report of a renewed flow of Falash Mura might seem to vindicate skeptics who warned that a seemingly endless number of Ethiopians eager to move to Israel would replace any allowed to emigrate.

But a leading advocate for the Falash Mura rejects the UJC report as inaccurate.

Even before its imminent release, the report is stoking a long-standing controversy over the Falash Mura, a community of roughly 26,000 whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity in the last century. Most of the Falash Mura say they have returned to Judaism.

The report is only the latest chapter in a complex saga that has sparked allegations of racism, double standards and foot-dragging on the part of Israeli authorities.

A year ago, Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, declared his intent to resolve the Falash Mura issue. Barak sent Interior Minister Natan Sharansky to Ethiopia last April to assess the situation and expedite the immigration application process.

Sharansky’s visit spurred greater attention to the issue from the UJC, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations.

New Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reiterated Israel’s desire to solve the humanitarian crisis by year’s end.

Some 3,000 Falash Mura have emigrated to Israel since January 2000. Up to 100 are making aliyah each week, a figure expected to hold steady through the end of 2001.

Yet the population around social service compounds set up at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa and the Consulate in Gondar has not diminished accordingly, a recent UJC fact-finding mission found.

“No matter how many times you do the math, the numbers are not going down,” said Caryn Rosen Adelman, a member of the UJC Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee who led the four-member mission in February. “It looks very clearly that the numbers have remained the same,” said Adelman, who is also the chairman of JTA’s Board of Directors.

Driving the movement of Falash Mura from their remote villages to the compounds appears to be the fear — fueled by their advocates in the United States and Israel, critics say — that they will be left behind if they do not make aliyah quickly.

Also heightening their anxiety may be recent statements by Israeli officials who have suggested that perhaps only one-third of the remaining 23,000 Falash Mura applicants will be accepted.

So far, 4,000 of the 23,000 have been accepted for aliyah, with few applicants rejected, according to the report.

One leading advocate claims that hints of a Falash Mura stampede to the compounds are not just inaccurate, but are intended to discourage American Jewish support for their emigration.

“I don’t want to accuse any person or organization, but whoever says that people are flowing to the compounds is not telling the truth, and he knows that he’s not telling the truth,” said Avraham Neguise, director of the Jerusalem- based South Wing to Zion advocacy group. “This is all an excuse not to help these people.”

Neguise insists that only 10 families, totaling 30 people, have entered the compound communities in the past year, to be reunited with relatives already there.

But, he suggests, if opponents succeed in spreading the fear of a never- ending stream of people with questionable claims to Jewish ancestry — some warn of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Christians scheming to enter Israel — the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry can declare the situation hopeless and end their efforts.

In fact, Israeli officials say they now have been approached by other Ethiopian groups who claim Jewish ancestry and are eager to move to Israel, according to the report.

“This fact lends credence to the observation” that “there is no way of knowing the actual and potential numbers of persons who will seek to make aliyah,” the report states.

Falash Mura advocates allege racism, saying that Russians with clear Jewish roots but little interest in Judaism are welcomed as Israeli citizens, along with their non-Jewish relatives.

In contrast, they say, Falash Mura — even those who have become religiously observant after returning to Judaism — are forced to leap through innumerable hoops.

Israeli officials and some analysts counter that nothing will ever satisfy the Falash Mura’s advocates, whom they accuse of taking advantage of Israel’s generous Law of Return and Law of Entry to improve the welfare of some of the world’s poorest people.

At the same time, Israeli officials say they must draw a line somewhere, as Ethiopians — who generally have limited education and come from a culture far different than Israel’s — are more costly to absorb than other immigrants.

The cost of absorbing Ethiopians is about $100,000 per person, including grants for 90 percent of an immigrant family’s mortgage payments, according to Mike Rosenberg, director general of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Department.

More than 80,000 Ethiopians already live in Israel. Supporting them cost the government, Jewish Agency and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee a combined $200 million last year, Rosenberg said.

As a means of “corrective action” to facilitate the absorption of both current and future Ethiopian Israelis, the agency expects to launch a nine-year, $660 million “National Aliyah Project” by the end of 2001, Rosenberg said. Funded in part by Diaspora Jewry, the project will focus on education and vocational training.

Meanwhile, the plight of the Falash Mura continues.

Aside from the 3,000 who have emigrated to Israel, roughly 18,000 Falash Mura are divided between the two compound communities run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. Another 5,000 remain in their villages.

For years, critics charge, Ethiopians in Israel and their advocates urged Falash Mura relatives to move to Gondar or Addis Ababa to catch the attention of Israeli authorities, though their living conditions in the city are far worse than in their native villages.

The Addis and Gondar compounds strain to serve the Falash Mura, who live in shanties but come to the compounds for health care, food, work, Jewish instruction and other social services.

Early media reports told of dire health conditions in the shantytowns. The health situation generally has improved, according to the UJC report, but parties on all sides — including the Falash Mura leadership — recently agreed not to allow more people to come to the compounds.

Instead, the head of a family can travel to Addis or Gondar, fill out an immigration application and return home. Israeli officials also may travel to isolated villages to interview applicants.

Applications for the roughly 18,000 Falash Mura in the compound communities have been completed and are being reviewed by Israel’s Interior Ministry.

Falash Mura advocates deny that they urge people to head for the compounds, but say they “wouldn’t be surprised” if the village exodus is continuing.

“If it were me, I’d be anxious that I’d be left behind,” said Lisa Schachner, the North American coordinator for South Wing to Zion. “The bottom line is, those who were persistent at the gates have made it to Israel. They know that those in the villages have not gotten there as quickly.”

One contentious issue is how to judge claims to Jewish descent, and how many more Ethiopians will seek to make aliyah.

A 1999 census by Israel’s Interior Ministry concluded that there were 26,000 Falash Mura. The fear is that thousands of other Ethiopians who want a richer life in Israel may try to join the emigration.

Falash Mura advocates say they want to have only the 26,000 admitted to Israel.

“Hundreds of thousands will not suddenly appear with credentials,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, the founder and executive director of NACOEJ. “Now, is there a possibility of other Ethiopians presenting themselves as Falash Mura? Could happen. But they are easily discovered.”

How easily is a matter of dispute.

UJC officials and others note that the lack of written documentation makes it nearly impossible to check an Ethiopian’s ancestry.

Gordon and her colleagues, however, note that the Falash Mura rely on oral history and memorize the family tree, often able to cite ancestors going back seven generations.

Applicants are asked to name relatives in both Ethiopia and Israel. The response is then checked with community elders and religious leaders.

“If they don’t know him, goodbye,” Gordon said.

However, Rosenberg of JAFI said he knows of “tens” of cases where Ethiopian immigrants have been deported from Israel for lying about their identities.

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