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Falash Mura aliyah ends – sort of

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The aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, includes a school and synagogue where Ethiopians learn Jewish prayers. (Ron Csillag)

The aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, includes a school and synagogue where Ethiopians learn Jewish prayers. (Ron Csillag)

NEW YORK (JTA) – When the plane from Ethiopia touched down early Tuesday morning at Ben Gurion International Airport with 65 new immigrants aboard, there was no ceremony to mark what constituted the end of a major phase of mass Ethiopian aliyah.

Instead, the immigrants were escorted through the old airport terminal, processed and bused to Jewish Agency-run absorption centers across the country.

They were the last of more than 17,000 to come to Israel since the Israeli government decided in 2003 to allow in a limited number of additional Ethiopians known as Falash Mura.

It was a far cry from the last time Israel completed a major phase of Ethiopian aliyah, in June 1998. Back then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on hand to welcome the immigrants, promising them a bus tour of Jerusalem and declaring mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel officially over.

Tuesday’s more subdued reception owed, in part, to the controversial aftermath of that ceremony.

Just weeks after Netanyahu’s declaration, more than 8,000 additional Ethiopians turned up at Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia petitioning that they, too, be taken to Israel. In the decade since, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have come to Israel, in large part due to the efforts of advocates in Israel and the United States.

Even before Tuesday’s milestone arrived, the closing of this phase of Ethiopian immigration – many thought it would constitute the end of mass Ethiopian aliyah – carried echoes of 1998.

About a year and a half ago, advocates for Ethiopian aliyah announced that another 8,000 Ethiopians had migrated from their rural villages to Gondar, where Jewish aid compounds are located, and demanded that they be processed for aliyah.

But Israel’s Interior Ministry refused to screen the new group for eligibility to immigrate, arguing that they were not covered by the government’s 2003 decision. Advocates for the Ethiopians challenged the ministry’s position in court, but Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ministry, finding that the group – which by this spring had swelled to 8,700 – represented new petitioners.

The court recommended, however, that the government review the eligibility of some 1,400 of the petitioners, and several weeks ago Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in principle with that recommendation.

That means, in essence, that Ethiopian aliyah still isn’t over.

“There was no event because an event would have made a statement that aliyah is over,” Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, which carries out the government decisions on Ethiopian aliyah, said after Tuesday’s flight arrived. “The issue of aliyah from Ethiopia is not a closed book yet, so there’s no need to have a ceremony.”

The debate surrounding the immigration of the Falash Mura – Ethiopians claiming links to people whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity a century ago to escape economic and social pressures, but who now are returning to Judaism and petitioning to immigrate to Israel – has been influenced by the frequent fluctuations in the number said to be left in Ethiopia.

Skeptics point to the frequent additions to those numbers as signs that non-Jewish Ethiopians are deceptively claiming links to Ethiopians of Jewish descent and exploiting lax Israeli immigration regulations to escape Africa’s desperate poverty for the relative comfort of the Jewish state.

Israeli ministers, Jewish aid officials and members of Israel’s own Ethiopian Jewish community are among the skeptics, and they have been behind efforts to quantify and cap the aliyah of the Falash Mura.

“We are creating a hell of a job for ourselves because of political correctness or trying to be nice,” Israel’s interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, told the Jerusalem Post in a 2007 interview.

Echoing sentiments frequently voiced in Israel, Sheetrit expressed fears that the aliyah would never finish. He also cast aspersions on the Falash Mura’s Jewishness, calling them Christians.

Advocates, however, claim that the vast majority of those petitioning to immigrate to Israel have legitimate links to Jewish ancestry and are genuinely returning to Jewish practices, not simply adopting Jewish observances in a bid to immigrate. Many advocates say Israel’s reticence to accept the Falash Mura stems from racial bias – a charge Israeli officials reject.

Advocates are not giving up on their effort for the group of 8,700, saying Israel should review their applications for aliyah to determine their eligibility instead of refusing to consider them outright. They have lined up a number of high-profile figures behind their cause, including former Israeli Supreme Court justice Meir Shamgar, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler.

They also are lobbying Knesset members. Last month, the 120-member parliament passed two nonbinding resolutions in favor of the 8,700 petitioners, by votes of 44-1 and 43-1. The resolutions have no legal power.

Some of the fiercest advocates for Ethiopian aliyah are in the United States. North American Jewish federations, including its umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities, have pressed the Israeli government to accept Ethiopian immigrants and bankrolled the work of the main Jewish aid group operating in Ethiopia, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, known as NACOEJ.

But with the aliyah begun in 2003 now complete, and the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court saying the government has fulfilled its pledges, American Jewish support for the aliyah has dwindled.

UJC fell nearly $30 million short of its $100 million fund-raising goal for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption as part of Operation Promise, a three-year effort that launched in 2005. In June, the UJC announced that its Ethiopia-related funds had been exhausted.

That cut funding for NACOEJ’s aid programs in Ethiopia by some $68,000 per month. Several big-city federations supportive of Ethiopian aliyah were informed of UJC’s cut and advised to pick up the slack if possible, but NACOEJ says the shortfall has forced the closure of the group’s food program in Gondar for young mothers and their children.

A UJC official told JTA last week that the umbrella group might be willing to consider resuming funding in Ethiopia, depending on the humanitarian situation.

For now, it’s not clear when Israel will begin reviewing the 1,400 petitioners for their eligibility to make aliyah. And though Israeli officials have no obligation to bring the remainder of the 8,700 people said to be left in Gondar, advocates insist they will not give up their fight.

“The reality is stronger than people like Sheetrit,” said Avraham Neguise, the director of South Wing to Zion, an Ethiopian Israeli advocacy group. “If everyone is afraid of 8,000 today, in another few years we can bring more. The longer they stay there, the more Israel will have to bring.”

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