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As Falash Mura Languish, Some Hope Courts Can Force Israel’s Hand

Where protests and appeals to activists have failed, 390 Ethiopians who want to immigrate to Israel hope the courts can provide some relief.

The Falash Mura, Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, often under societal pressure, filed a lawsuit Monday against the Jewish state for allegedly dragging its feet on their immigration to Israel.

At the same time, a flurry of letters urging that Falash Mura aliyah be expedited has circulated in the last three months among leaders of American Jewry, Congress and Israel.

The lawsuit highlights a growing clamor here and in Israel surrounding the aliyah of the Falash Mura, who have returned to an Orthodox brand of Judaism over the past decade while waiting in decrepit transit camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar.

In a landmark Feb. 16 resolution, Israel’s Cabinet voted to immediately check the eligibility of some 19,000 Falash Mura remaining in the Ethiopian compounds. Those that can prove maternal Jewish descent would be brought over.

So far, however, little has happened to translate the decision into reality. This weeks’ lawsuit asks Israel’s High Court of Justice to force Interior Minister Avraham Poraz to enact the Cabinet resolution, or force the Israeli government to circumvent Poraz to do so, said Omri Kaufman, the lawyer handling the pro bono case for the Tel Aviv law firm of Goldfarb Levy Eran.

The lawyers are acting on behalf of 390 Falash Mara from the Gondar and Addis Ababa camps; Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, an American organization that provides humanitarian aid to the Falash Mura in Ethiopia; and an Ethiopian leader in Israel.

“So much time passes without any actual deeds, only promises,” Kaufman said.

The Falash Mura’s eligibility for aliyah has been questioned since Operation Solomon in 1991, when Israel airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours.

Falash Mura hoping to make aliyah were refused at the time, with critics questioning their Jewishness and saying they only wanted to escape famine-plagued Ethiopia. Admission to Israel, they said, could lead to a deluge of people with dubious claims of Jewish heritage.

About 20,000 Falash Mura have made aliyah since then, mostly under Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews or their children or grandchildren.

However, critics say Israel has not acted on the Feb. 16 decision. Also, the interministerial committee that was to implement the Cabinet resolution has yet to meet.

It is slated to meet in a week or so, according to Tibi Robinovici, senior adviser to Poraz.

The Interior Ministry claims it’s too cash-strapped to quickly absorb many Falash Mura immigrants, estimating last month that it would cost nearly $25 million to absorb the entire group.

Because of the enormous cultural and socioeconomic differences, Israeli officials say it costs more to absorb immigrants from Ethiopia than from other areas.

For example, Ethiopians often spend at least year in absorption centers, while most other immigrants are immediately absorbed through municipalities or spend only a few months in absorption centers, according to Yehuda Weinraub, spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration and absorption.

Poraz is “not sure the state of Israel is ready to absorb” such a “large number of people,” Robinovici said.

Instead, Israel is bringing about 250 Falash Mura to the Jewish state each month.

The Feb. 16 resolution also called for financial aid from American Jewish organizations, namely the United Jewish Communities, but the federation umbrella organization apparently has not been contacted for assistance.

Israel also lowered its fiscal 2004 request to the U.S. Congress for immigration aid, from $60 million to $50 million.

Robinovici said those issues would be addressed in the upcoming interministerial meeting.

The issue is arousing interest among Diaspora Jewry, and even in Congress.

“Like many other rabbis, I am wholehearted in my belief that the Falash Mura are part of the Jewish people and that it is a commandment that we relieve their suffering and bring them to Israel, their true home,” Rabbi Hershel Billet, then-president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, wrote in a May 9 letter to James Tisch, vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and chairman of the board of the UJC.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, seconded the sentiment in an April 15 letter to Tisch.

Tisch told JTA he has not responded to the letters.

“I agree with everybody that this is a terrible situation and some resolution to it has to be found,” Tisch said. “But the problem is that I don’t think the funds are there.”

“It will require a major restructuring of the Jewish Agency budget,” he said. “Should the Jewish Agency take it from their operations in Russia or other countries,” he asked, adding, “Where would they get the money?”

For its part, the Jewish Agency will take direction from the Israeli government, Weinraub said.

“Last time I looked, the government of Israel was also very strapped,” Tisch said.

Estimating that it could cost $100,000 to absorb each immigrant, Tisch said, “I don’t see American philanthropy coming up with those funds.”

Asked whether the UJC would run an emergency campaign for the Falash Mura, he said, “My sense is that whether we have a second-line campaign or not, it wouldn’t be able to raise the amounts that are ultimately going to be needed.”

Joseph Feit, past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, rejected that reasoning. NACOEJ feeds, schools and employs Falash Mura at embroidery jobs in Ethiopia, and educates them in Israel.

Early in Israel’s existence it “brought hundreds of thousands of Jews, when its financial situation and that of world Jewry was incomparably worse” Feit said.

The federation system recently allocated $39 million to help bring Argentine Jews to Israel, he added.

“Ethiopian Jews should have no less of a right just because their skin color, education level and culture may be different from ours,” he said.

Eric Yoffie, head of America’s Reform congregations, backed the Falash Mura’s move in an e-mail to Poraz on June 19. Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, made the same case in a May 29 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Even U.S. legislators have entered the fray.

“The Cabinet decision of February 16 was widely applauded by several members of Congress, particularly members of the black and Jewish caucuses.

“We were therefore concerned to learn that few steps have been taken to implement the Cabinet decision, and that the Jewish population in Ethiopia continue to wait in horrendous conditions of hunger, illiteracy and disease,” they wrote to Poraz.

With Israel “concerned about a lack of funds to handle the costs of implementing the decision,” the legislators wrote, they were “puzzled to hear Israel might be seeking fewer funds from Congress” to absorb refugees.

Ethiopian Jewish activists remain frustrated.

Poraz is “just not taking seriously our issue,” said Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, an Israel- based organization for Ethiopian Jews. He’s “choking the life of our community.”

For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides medical services and extra food for malnourished children and pregnant women, is continuing its services “uninterrupted” to the population in Gondar and Addis Ababa, said Amir Shaviv, the group’s assistant executive vice president.

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