TEL AVIV (Jan. 14)
The plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport shortly after midnight and the Ethiopian passengers filled the plane’s doorway, lining up to make their way down the stairs and set foot in their new home.
The planeload of immigrants, which arrived in Israel on Tuesday, was the latest in a steady trickle of Falash Mura making their way from Africa to the Promised Land.
But their comrades back home are still waiting for that trickle to turn into the wave promised nearly a year ago by the Israeli government.
In Israel, criticism about the planned transfer of the Falash Mura community — and the long delay — is mounting.
The Falash Mura are Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, many under coercion, but who recently have reverted to Jewish practices.
Opponents of their immigration are asking whether the flow of Ethiopians will ever stop and how Israel will finance the transfer and absorption of the Falash Mura community. An estimated 20,000 Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia.
Next month’s scheduled hearing of a petition against the government by Falash Mura activists, and last week’s visit to Ethiopia by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, have put the controversy back in the spotlight.
In Ethiopia last week, Shalom toured the Falash Mura compounds and told people there that he wanted to see them in Israel.
Observers cautioned not to read too much into Shalom’s comments, saying the main purpose of the visit was to bolster ties between Israel and the Ethiopian government. The Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the trip.
On Feb. 12, Israel’s High Court of Justice will hold its second round of oral hearings on a petition Falash Mura activists filed against the government for allegedly unnecessarily delaying implementation of last year’s decision to bring the Falash Mura en masse to Israel.
“We say it’s a very clear government decision,” said Omri Kaufman, who is handling the case pro bono for a Tel Aviv law firm. “They need to carry it out and not to find reasons not to do it.”
There has been a lot of talk but no real action since the petition was filed, he said.
Many Falash Mura in Israel accuse the government of dragging its feet since a landmark Cabinet decision last February to bring all the Falash Mura to Israel, but other Ethiopian-Israeli Jews still have doubts about the Falash Mura’s Jewish credentials — even though Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the three main religious denominations have said they’re Jews.
Last week, Absorption Minister Tsipi Livni convened a meeting with Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders in Israel to enlist their help in determining who should qualify for immigration.
Some Ethiopian-Israeli Jews say many professing to be Falash Mura are fraudulently claiming Jewish heritage to escape Ethiopia’s crushing poverty.
“We are the Jews who observed our heritage for 2,000 years, and now another group comes and says they are not Jews but want to become Jews,” said Dani Adeno, an Ethiopian-Israeli journalist and filmmaker. “I believe that 70 percent, maybe more, have no connection to Judaism.”
Because the Falash Mura could not initially prove they had Jewish origins, Israel did not allow them to join the mass airlifts of 1984 and 1991.
Since 1998, some 20,000 Falash Mura have left their rural homes and moved close to urban compounds run by Jewish groups in Addis Ababa and Gondar in hopes of immigrating to Israel.
According to a census conducted by groups advocating their immigration, some 26,000 are able to prove maternal Jewish roots and therefore fit the current Israeli government criteria to move to Israel.
But critics say there’s no guarantee that this would be the final number, and fear that many more may try to immigrate.
Despite last year’s Cabinet decision, the pace of 300 arrivals a month has not picked up. Those who have come were admitted under the Law of Entry, which allows immigration for humanitarian and family unification purposes.
In recent years, some 11,000 Falash Mura have immigrated and reunited with their families, according to the Ministry of Absorption.
Livni has said publicly that the Falash Mura can’t be brought en masse without proper plans and sufficient funds for their absorption, estimated at $100,000 per person over a lifetime.
In October, leaders of the North American Jewish federation system met with Interior Minister Avraham Poraz and other government officials to discuss the funding of absorption costs. Several proposals were discussed, but no final agreement was reached.
Poraz, who is responsible for implementing last year’s decision and who has been criticized for foot-dragging by Falash Mura advocates, has voiced similar concerns.
Among the government’s critics is Avraham Neguise, executive director of South Wing to Zion, an Israeli advocacy group for Falash Mura.
“Putting economic considerations before saving Jews is a crime against Zionism,” he said. “We are demanding the government give answers.”
Falash Mura advocates say the famine in Ethiopia requires immediate action. Neguise said Falash Mura community leaders in Ethiopia told him that 40 people have died from famine-related illnesses while waiting to come to Israel.
But officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — which run the compounds in Ethiopia — defended the health standards for the waiting Falash Mura.
“This medical program ascertains that the health status of the Falash Mura is superb compared to their fellow countrymen, and meets Western standards,” said Amir Shaviv, JDC’s assistant executive vice president.
Neguise said the government’s financial concerns are hypocritical.
“It is very, very difficult to imagine why, when they are begging other Jews to come from countries like Russia, America and Argentina, they are raising the question of money for the Ethiopian Jews. I have no doubt there is discrimination,” Neguise said.
The Finance Ministry has said that absorption costs for the Falash Mura are exorbitant because of the deep cultural and economic gaps the Ethiopians must overcome to acclimate in Israel.
Ethiopian immigrants typically stay longer in absorption centers than other immigrants, and often go on to live in public housing.
“If you bring them, you also have a great responsibility to absorb them, and if we don’t have a plan in place and finances to back it up then we are creating a big problem in Israel,” said Mike Rosenberg, director general of immigration and absorption at the Jewish Agency.
Shaviv said he welcomed the debate on the Falash Mura.
“In recent weeks, the government of Israel is indeed seriously debating this issue,” he said. “Thus, the ball is clearly in the right court.”