New signs that Ethiopian aliyah will resume

An Israeli Interior Ministry official checks the eligibility for aliyah of Ethiopians in Gondar, Ethiopia, in 2005. (Uriel Heilman)

An Israeli Interior Ministry official checks the eligibility for aliyah of Ethiopians in Gondar, Ethiopia, in 2005. (Uriel Heilman)

NEW YORK (JTA) — After being shut for more than a year, the gates of mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel may be swinging open again — this time for some 9,000 people.

In July, Israeli government representatives returned to Ethiopia to assess the eligibility for aliyah of approximately 3,000 Ethiopians who may be entitled to immigrate but had never filed petitions. Advocates had pressed Israel to expand its assessment to a much larger group of Ethiopians — 8,700 people in all — but Israel had demurred.

Now, however, a campaign by advocates that stresses the health risks facing the 8,700 Ethiopians, along with the support of Israel’s interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, may throw open the aliyah gates for all of them.

If that happens, mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel likely would continue through 2017, at a rate of 100 immigrants per month, officials say.

The group at issue is comprised of so-called Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, but who now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel.

A major sign of change came last month when Yishai, who became interior minister when Benjamin Netanyahu’s government took office six months ago, sent a letter to a U.S. Jewish aid group saying there were “steps in place” to consider the aliyah eligibility of 5,700 Ethiopians in addition to the 3,000 the ministry already was checking.

The letter, sent to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, urged the JDC to reopen its medical clinic in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, where the 8,700 people live. The JDC had shuttered the clinic in July after those the Israeli government deemed eligible for aliyah had moved to Israel.

At the same time, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ, an aid organization and the main advocacy group for Ethiopian aliyah, stepped up efforts portraying the 8,700 aliyah hopefuls in Gondar as at grave medical risk.

NACOEJ took a prominent Israeli physician to Ethiopia to assess the medical condition of the Gondar community, whose members NACOEJ considers Jewish but whose Jewish links remain unverified by Israel. While the assessment did not include any physical exams, the physician, Dr. Arthur Eidelman, told JTA he saw “clear signs of malnutrition in children, particularly under age 6.”

Eidelman, formerly the chief of pediatrics at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, produced a report calling for the reopening of the JDC clinic.

Once the JDC, which says it takes its cues from the Israeli government on Falash Mura-related issues, received Yishai’s letter, it began taking steps to reopen the medical clinic in Gondar, JDC officials said. Now the organization says it needs $250,000 to operate the clinic.

In the meantime, NACOEJ says children are dying of malnutrition.

“Many children in the Jewish community of Gondar, Ethiopia have already become ill or died from hunger this year,” said a fund-raising e-mail NACOEJ sent to its mailing list in mid-September, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

The group has sent similar e-mails throughout the past decade, even when the JDC clinic in Gondar was open. During that time, JDC officials maintained that accounts of children dying of malnutrition were untrue or unverified.

But with the shuttering of JDC’s clinic and the decline in food aid at NACOEJ-sponsored aid centers in Gondar — due to budget cuts from federation sponsors in North America, NACOEJ officials say — the health of the Gondar population has grown more precarious, according to NACOEJ.

The group’s director of operations, Orlee Guttman, told JTA that several children from the community had died in the last year from hunger, malaria and tuberculosis.

NACOEJ does not conduct medical assessments or perform autopsies; Guttman said it relies on parents to determine cause of death.

In response to JTA’s inquiries, NACOEJ disclosed the names of five toddlers it said had died over the past year. Four died of malaria and one, 2-year-old Benyam Derebie Abere, had “hunger” listed as cause of death, according to the organization.

There appears to be little dispute that reopening the JDC clinic in Gondar for the 8,700 aliyah hopefuls would improve their ability to receive considerably better health care. What is in dispute is who they really are and whether they truly are linked to Ethiopian Jews.

Many Israelis believe they are mostly Christian Ethiopians deceptively claiming Jewish links and adopting Jewish observances in a bid to escape Africa’s desperate poverty for the relative comfort of the Jewish state.

“We are creating a hell of a job for ourselves because of political correctness or trying to be nice,” Israel’s previous interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, told The Jerusalem Post in a 2007 interview about the 8,700.

Advocates say the people in Gondar are Jews who have been left behind by Israel.

Ethiopian immigration long has vexed successive Israeli governments. On several occasions, Israel has committed to bringing in a finite number of immigrants that they believed constituted all the remaining Ethiopians eligible for aliyah, only to be told once the number had been reached that thousands more had been left behind.

Israel completed the most recent phase of mass Ethiopian aliyah in the summer of 2008, when the last of some 16,095 immigrants arrived under a 2003 decision by Ariel Sharon’s government to bring those eligible from a 1999 Israeli census of possible Ethiopian olim.

But in September 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked the Interior Ministry to return to Ethiopia to check the eligibility for aliyah of those from the 1999 census who had never filed petitions — a group said to comprise approximately 3,000 people. The Interior Ministry representatives left for Ethiopia this summer and are still there.

Due to the difficulty of proving Jewish lineage among the Falash Mura, those who wish to make aliyah must meet several conditions: They or their spouse must demonstrate Jewish maternal links at some point in their provenance; they must have had a relative in Israel file a petition on their behalf by July 31, 2009; they must be listed on the 1999 census; and they must be among the group in Gondar.

Designed to limit the number of Ethiopians who qualify, the conditions also are more relaxed than those that apply to would-be immigrants from elsewhere in the world, such as the United States or the former Soviet Union. While Americans or Russians would be disqualified for aliyah for being less than “one-quarter” Jewish or if their only Jewish grandparent converted out of the faith, Ethiopians are not disqualified for ancestral conversion to Christianity — as long as they can demonstrate maternal links to a Jew.

Ultimately, the battle over these 5,700 additional people — an Interior Ministry list puts the total number, with the 3,000, at approximately 9,300 — is part of a debate that has raged in Israel and among American Jews since the beginning of the aliyah of the Falash Mura over where to draw the line.

The line has changed with nearly every Israeli government. Where, exactly, it is drawn under Benjamin Netanyahu remains to be seen.

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