Delays on Falash Mura Aliyah Leave U.S. Groups Frustrated and Impatient

Ever since the Israeli government decided a year and a half ago to accelerate Ethiopian immigration, the Jewish agencies and federations working on the issue have waited for the government to make good on its promise. As months passed without any action, the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization voted to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption. Last June’s pledge, part of a $160 million special campaign called Operation Promise, was intended in part to pressure the government to implement its decision to double the pace of Ethiopian aliyah, to 600 people per month.

Last month, however, an Israeli interministerial committee voted to put the brakes on the plan, possibly until well into 2007. The reason, according to Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson: not enough cash.

The latest delay has left American Jewish leaders behind the Ethiopian campaign frustrated and impatient.

“Obviously, it slows a lot of things down,” said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

“We don’t believe there’s a significant economic difference to the Israeli state, because these people are going to be coming eventually,” Hoffman said. “We think it’s not a financial issue, it’s a timing issue.”

On average, each Ethiopian immigrant costs the State of Israel approximately $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to government estimates.

John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, said some Israeli and U.S. Jewish observers suspect that the current government has no intention of implementing its predecessor’s decision on the Falash Mura.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet voted twice — in February 2003 and January 2005 — to expedite Ethiopian aliyah and bring to Israel all eligible Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. So far, the only official word from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s current government was the vote to delay the plan.

“Some Israeli observers believe this decision was deferred,” Ruskay said. “Others believe that the prior government’s decision was reversed. It’s uncertain.”

In a letter to U.S. Jewish officials, Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who was at the interministerial committee meeting, called it a question of “if and when the final decision is made.” The committee deferred the decision until “after the priorities of the 2007 budget are settled in the coming months,” Bielski explained.

One reason for the delay is the government’s preoccupation with other pressing problems, such as renewed conflict with the Palestinians. Ethiopian aliyah appears to be a low priority for attention and funding.

“It’s a question of timing, not a question of implementation,” insisted Doron Krakow, UJC’s senior vice president for Israel and overseas affairs. “There’s been no change in policy.”

Federation officials say they’ll continue to press hard for Ethiopian aliyah, partly by bringing money to the table.

“We’re conducting the fund-raising now to show the government that we’re ready to hold up our end of the deal,” Hoffman said, echoing sentiments expressed a year ago by UJC CEO Howard Rieger.

But the fund-raising effort has been complicated by the delay, in part because donors were promised an expedited aliyah operation that hasn’t yet happened.

In New York, for example, the local federation’s pledge to Operation Promise is contingent on Israel accelerating the pace of Ethiopian aliyah. Because that hasn’t happened, New York hasn’t yet sent any of its $5.3 million pledge for Operation Promise to UJC, though UJA-Federation of New York continues to support Ethiopian aliyah and absorption projects through its regular annual budget.

In any case, a steady stream of 300 Ethiopians continues to arrive in the Jewish state each month. Even if the rate is never doubled, all the aliyah-eligible people left in Ethiopia may have made it to Israel by 2010.

In the meantime, Ethiopians in Addis Ababa and Gondar continue to petition to immigrate to the Jewish state.

The petitioners say they are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Now they have begun returning to Judaism in a bid to emigrate, along with their extended families, to the Jewish state. Israel calls these people Falash Mura.

The Falash Mura’s Jewish pedigree is virtually impossible to prove. Unlike Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, the Falash Mura have not maintained Jewish traditions and practice, so Israel has been accepting only those Falash Mura who can demonstrate a familial connection with Ethiopians already in Israel.

It’s not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, though aid officials say the number is likely not more than 13,000. However, the Jerusalem Post last year found indications that tens of thousands more Ethiopians with ties to Jewish ancestry are living in the Ethiopian highlands.

Some Israeli officials stationed in Ethiopia and American Jewish federation leaders who have gone on fact-finding missions to Ethiopia say it’s essential to bring the current group of Falash Mura as quickly as possible so the number of petitioners for aliyah stops growing.

For their part, Jewish aid and advocacy officials say the Falash Mura must be brought to Israel as quickly as possible because they suffer from extremely poor living conditions in Ethiopia.

“The delay in aliyah will result not only in prolonging suffering in Ethiopia, but cause a delay in absorption” of the Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, said Orlee Guttman, director of operations for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which maintains aid operations in Gondar.

The delays also have postponed a planned transfer of Jewish aid operations in Ethiopia from NACOEJ to the Jewish Agency. As a consequence, since March the UJC has been providing $50,000 per month to NACOEJ to help it maintain its aid compound in Gondar, UJC officials said.

“It is clear to us that we must consolidate our great efforts in the near future so that we may implement the previous government’s decision,” Bielski said after the meeting.

Federation officials said the Israelis promised to revisit the issue soon.

“It will be discussed in a matter of weeks rather than months,” Hoffman said. “The prime minister promised us that we will get to this sooner rather than later.”

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