The fingers may be pointing in different directions, but they signal the same thing — a delay in hastening Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel. The Israeli government has yet to meet its goal of doubling the immigration rate this summer of Falash Mura, Ethiopians who have returned to Judaism after their ancestors converted to Christianity.
The operation, which insiders say should begin in the fall, has the full support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who earlier this year called for doubling Falash Mura immigration to 600 a month, with the aim of bringing the roughly 20,000-strong population to Israel in two-and-a-half years.
But sources close to the process say key legislators have stonewalled the relocation effort, failing to complete the inspection of eligible immigrants, make a deal with the Ethiopian government, or draw up a budget.
“The holdup is due to conscious or unconscious inefficiency in the Ministry of Interior,” said Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and a past president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the North American Jewish federation system.
“The government has been reluctant to do this altogether, and it’s only because the prime minister is so clear in his belief that it’s the right thing to do that it’s moving forward,” Hoffman said.
The Falash Mura have found champions in the UJC and its overseas partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs Zionist-education programs worldwide and handles immigration and absorption in Israel.
The UJC’s board of trustees voted last month to raise $160 million over three years for Falash Mura aliyah and the continued integration of Ethiopians already in Israel.
Some board members expressed concern about raising the money, but the group committed to make its “best efforts” to fund the project.
The Israeli government is estimating that it will cost some $700 million to absorb the new immigrants.
While the Jewish Agency is planning for 20,000 new immigrants, the Interior Ministry anticipates only 13,000.
“There is an argument between the government and the Jewish Agency,” said Gilad Heimann, the media adviser to Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who heads the interministerial committee on the Falash Mura.
Heimann told JTA that thousands of Falash Mura have already made aliyah, which accounts for the discrepancy between the two numbers.
In any case, Heimann said, the current delay stems from an Ethiopian government request to postpone the plan because of unrest surrounding local elections in May.
“The situation there is unstable, and they asked us to wait. We don’t have any choice but to do what they asked us to do, because without their cooperation we can do nothing,” Heimann said.
Joseph Feit, a past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, rejected that rationale.
“If after six months Ethiopia has yet to receive Israel’s written proposal, how can Ethiopia reasonably be blamed?” he said.
Heimann said Pines-Paz is scheduled to go to Ethiopia on Aug. 8. He will be joined by representatives from the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency to sign a deal with the Ethiopian government to double the rate of Falash Mura immigration.
Heimann was optimistic that immigration would speed up beginning in September. With more than 2,000 Falash Mura already cleared for relocation, the process is ready to begin. The funding needed for the project in 2005 isn’t substantial.
But Mike Rosenberg, the Jewish Agency’s director general for immigration and absorption, thinks it won’t be so simple.
For example, checking immigrants’ eligibility is a painstaking process, he said.
“You’re talking about a country that has no documents, and these people have to prove that they are who they say they are,” Rosenberg said. That requires formal interviews with friends and neighbors of a prospective immigrant family.
Additionally, “most of the ministers in the government are pretty much opposed to this,” he said, since they suspect there will be no end to the number of Ethiopians who want to move to Israel.
Many ministers also feel that the federation system and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry have burdened Israel with a tremendous task and aren’t raising enough funds for the effort, he said.
If the action of UJC’s leadership is any indication, Israel might not have to worry.
The UJC chairman, Robert Goldberg of Cleveland, is matching his annual campaign gift of $900,000 with a donation of equal size to the Falash Mura operation, and he is asking others to do so as well.
Goldberg said the UJC is just beginning to roll out fund-raising plans for the program but that he has faith in Israel’s ability to follow through.
If Israel needs time to get “all the ministries onboard, then great. But the prime minister is committed” to bringing the Falash Mura to Israel, he said.
The UJC leaders were in Israel for the Jewish Agency’s board of governors meetings last month with Sharon, who described how the Falash Mura operation would finish the job begun by earlier mass Ethiopian immigrations, Goldberg said.
“As long as the prime minister is out front on this and is a primary mover — and the federations feel it’s something important — we’re more than happy to support the prime minister,” he said.