TEL AVIV (Jan. 3)
Plans to accelerate the immigration to Israel of Ethiopia’s remaining Falash Mura community apparently have been delayed. The government previously had said the operation to bring 600 Falash Mura to Israel every month would begin in January. The plan is to determine who is eligible to come — somewhere between 13,000 to 20,000 — and bring them all in the next two years.
However, now there’s no fixed date for the process to begin — and the issue seems to have receded on the list of national priorities as Israel prepares for March 28 general elections.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has expressed his frustration with the apparent bureaucratic foot-dragging over bringing the Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity but have since returned to Judaism.
A government decision was made last year to bring the community after heavy lobbying from some American Jewish leaders. Shalom oversaw an agreement with the Ethiopian government to double the number of immigrants coming to Israel from 300 to 600 a month.
“Foreign Minister Shalom is greatly disturbed by the possibility of a delay,” his office said in a statement given to JTA.
Shalom has asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to personally intervene in the matter, the statement said.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office would neither confirm nor deny a delay but did say that during the third week of January a high-level meeting would be held to “determine the arrival of the remaining Falash Mura.”
The officials said the commitment to bring the community to Israel still stands, but the timetable is uncertain.
Some blame the delay on interministerial squabbling, others on the upcoming elections.
At the root of it all is the issue of funding.
To date the Finance Ministry has yet to approve the budget of some $850 million, to be paid out over the next three years, to absorb the new immigrants. The government also is awaiting funding promised by the United Jewish Communities, which pledged to raise $100 million from federations for the operation.
UJC officials in New York said much of the UJC money is dependent on the implementation of the accelerated immigration. Some $23 million is expected to go toward aiding the Falash Mura while they’re still in Ethiopia; another $40 million will go to supporting them once they land in Israeli absorption centers; and about $37 million will go to long-term absorption needs like education.
“We expect and look forward to the implementation of the Israeli government’s policy accelerating the aliyah,” said Jim Lodge, UJC’s associate vice president for Israel and Overseas. “What we don’t know is the exact time, the exact numbers.”
A large portion of the government money will be earmarked for apartment mortgages for the new immigrants. The mortgage are worth roughly $50,000 per family, a sum that may not go over well during an election season focused in part on the grievances of Israel’s poor.
The immigration process is planned as a swift one, with families expected to move out of absorption centers and into apartments within a year of arrival. For that to happen, however, the money for mortgages must be in hand.
For months, the Jewish Agency for Israel has had a team of staff members ready to go to Ethiopia as soon as the government gives final approval to the accelerated immigration.
The agency plans to send Hebrew teachers and other facilitators to a camp in the Gondar region where most of the Falash Mura are being housed. The idea is to prepare them as much as possible for life in Israel through classes in Hebrew, Judaism and modern living.
“The Jewish Agency for Israel has learned important lessons from its previous experience in the initial absorption of immigrants from Ethiopia and is confident that the immigration and absorption of the current wave of immigration from Ethiopia will be successful,” Zeev Bielski, the agency’s chairman, said in a recent statement.
(JTA Staff Writer Chanan Tigay in New York contributed to this report.)