JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he has decided to bring some 1,000 Ethiopian Falash Mura who have children living in Israel to the country.
Netanyahu made the announcement on Monday at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on the Advancement and Integration of Israeli Citizens of Ethiopian Origin.
There are some 8,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia awaiting permission to immigrate to Israel, most of whom have some family members in Israel.
The Falash Mura claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago under duress but now seek to return to Judaism. They must get special permission to immigrate to Israel due to their uncertain Jewish status.
“This is not a simple decision due to other ramifications that we have regarding members of the Ethiopian community,” Netanyahu said at the meeting. “However, I am determined to do this and I add that this is in wake of 1,300 Falash Mura who have already come to Israel.”
The announcement came a day after reports that Rabbi Moshe Havlin, the chief rabbi of the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Gat, said he would withdraw kosher certification from a local catering company if Ethiopian women continued to prepare the food there unless they could prove their Jewishness. Under Orthodox Jewish law, certain foods that are completely cooked by a non-Jew, known as “bishul akum,” may not be eaten by a kosher observer even if the ingredients are kosher and cooked in a kosher kitchen.
Some political officials charged that the rabbi’s motives are racist, not religious.
Ilan Gilon of the left-wing Meretz party called on the country’s attorney general to investigate, saying that “if there is truth to the report, the rabbi acted contrary to his public and moral authority and is not worthy of continuing to serve in his position.”
“It should also be examined whether discrimination has been committed under the Equal Employment Opportunities Law. The words spoken by Rabbi Havlin certainly do not correspond to the values of Judaism that we all know and cherish, and certainly do not correspond to the values and behavior expected of a majority in Israel.”
In 2013, Israel’s Interior Ministry approved the immigration of the remaining Falash Mura, and the Knesset in November 2015 unanimously approved a plan to bring some of them to Israel following a public campaign launched by the nation’s Ethiopian community and volunteer organizations. But the plan did not deal with the finances, which include the long-term costs of acclimating the immigrants.
An agreement to find money in the budget for the aliyah of the Falash Mura was signed in April 2016, and in 2017 some 1.300 Falash Mura arrived in Israel. The 2019 state budget, which was approved by the Knesset in March, does not include funds for Ethiopian immigration.
An organization representing Ethiopian Israelis said that Netanyahu’s announcement is a disappointment to the community.
“In 2015, the government passed a unanimous decision to bring the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel, numbering approximately 8,000 individuals,” Alisa Bodner, spokeswoman of the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah, said in a statement. “Today’s decision leaves 7,000 individuals behind and is a harsh deviant from the commitment that the prime minister is yet to fulfill.”