JERUSALEM (JTA) In a sign that Israel is taking steps to cap the number of future Ethiopian immigrants, the Interior Ministry has begun delivering rejection notices to Ethiopian petitioners deemed ineligible for aliyah. Since 2004, Israel has been bringing 300 Ethiopian immigrants to Israel each month from among a pool of several thousand Ethiopian aliyah petitioners. The mid-February change marks the first time Israeli officials have issued a substantial number of denial notices. In Addis Ababa, members of 385 Ethiopian families whose immigration applications were denied responded angrily to mail couriers seeking to deliver rejection notices, in some cases barring the couriers from approaching their homes. The Interior Ministry, hoping to avoid violent confrontations, said it was exploring alternative ways of delivering the rejection notices, such as posting them on public message boards. Some of the petitioners have been waiting up to eight years to emigrate, living in fetid shanty towns near the Israeli Embassy while waiting for word on their applications. “They submitted their requests, the requests were checked in Israel and Ethiopia, some were declined and some were approved,” Yariv Ovadia, deputy spokesman of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told JTA. “This is the nature of requesting petitions.” About 90 percent of the Addis Ababa petitioners were deemed eligible for aliyah. Ovadia said Israel has no intention of compensating those deemed ineligible to immigrate.The United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, which has advocated for and economically supports the aliyah from Ethiopia, said it might compensate the denied petitioners if they agreed to cease all efforts to get to Israel.”We are prepared to create a responsible mechanism to compensate people who have been waiting for long periods of time and now find that their wait was in vain,” said Doron Krakow, UJC’s senior vice president for Israel and overseas affairs.Some Ethiopian aliyah advocates in Israel, such as Avraham Neguise of the advocacy group South Wing to Zion, said they are furious with the government’s approach to the petitioners. “Let’s bring all of them,” Neguise said. “These are our people and at the end of the day they’ll come.” At issue is the number of Ethiopians eligible for aliyah. On Feb. 14, the Interior Ministry said 6,899 legitimate petitioners remain in Gondar, the Ethiopian city where the vast majority of petitioners now live. Of those, 1,468 have been approved and will be brought to Israel in coming months. The number of eligible aliyah petitioners left in Addis Ababa is negligible. Neguise says the number of legitimate petitioners is closer to 15,000, including some 8,000 Ethiopians who migrated from rural villages to Gondar over the past two years to be closer to the Israeli officials in Gondar determining aliyah eligibility. Both Ethiopian advocates like Neguise and the Interior Ministry base their numbers on a 1999 census conducted by a former Israeli official named David Efrati. That census originally counted some 27,000 Ethiopian candidates for aliyah, but the Interior Ministry said the list shrunk to some 17,000 once the Israeli government made clear its criteria for aliyah. In intervening years the list has grown by some 3,000 as a result of natural growth, the ministry said. In all, 11,264 Ethiopians have come to Israel since 2004, according to the Interior Ministry. This week’s move is a sign that the ministry is serious about its plan to end mass Ethiopian aliyah once all those eligible from the 1999 group are brought to Israel. The controversy in Israel over the aliyah of these Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, stems from lingering doubts over their Jewishness, concerns about Israel having to endure an endless flow of Ethiopian immigrants as a result of fraudulent claims by Ethiopians determined to escape Africa’s desperate poverty, and the high cost of absorbing the immigrants. Some also accuse Israel of racism. The average Ethiopian immigrant costs the Jewish state $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to government estimates. The Falash Mura claim they are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity several generations ago due to social and economic pressures. For the past two decades the Falash Mura, encouraged by American Jewish aid and advocacy groups, have been returning to Judaism and hope to immigrate to the Jewish state. As their Jewish provenance is virtually impossible to determine, the Falash Mura are being brought to Israel under the Law of Entry designed to unite families with members already in Israel, rather than the Law of Return, intended for those who can prove their Jewish identity. Some veteran Ethiopian immigrants say the Falash Mura are opportunists or phonies exploiting the system to get to Israel, even though they have been accepted as Jews by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the three major American Jewish religious movements.Last week, a group of Ethiopian rabbis and religious leaders claimed that some Falash Mura who have already arrived in Israel are engaged in Christian missionary activity there. Among Israeli officials, the primary concern is uncertainty over the number of Falash Mura left in Ethiopia. The aliyah was declared finished in 1998, when Israel held a ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv hailing the last planeload of immigrants, but the number of applicants soared to 8,000 several weeks later as thousands more Falash Mura poured into American Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia. By 1999 the number had risen to the 27,000 counted in Efrati’s census.Last month, with the number again hovering around 8,000, a coalition of Ethiopian advocacy groups in Israel claimed that an additional 8,000 had turned up in Gondar. This week’s unprecedented issuance of denials, along with the Interior Ministry’s public release of the numbers on their lists, is a sign that Ethiopian aliyah advocates may face an uphill battle getting those lists expanded beyond the current group of 7,000 or so petitioners. □
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.