The Israeli Cabinet’s decision this week to find the swiftest way to bring thousands of Ethiopians to Israel has reignited a controversy over how — and if — to deal with the potential immigrants.
On Sunday, the Cabinet approved a plan to immediately bring to Israel some 18,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura, the majority of whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity.
In recent years, thousands of Falash Mura left their homes in outlying areas of Ethiopia and moved to camps run by immigration activists in Addis Ababa and the northern city of Gondar, where they wait to be cleared for immigration.
Activists concerned about the fate of the Falash Mura applauded the Cabinet’s decision, which opponents condemned for being unrealistic, impossible to implement and contrary to Israel’s Law of Return.
The plan, initiated by Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, could cost cash-strapped Israel $2 billion — or about 5 percent of the government’s total annual expenditures.
When Israel began carrying out large-scale immigration operations of Ethiopian Jews in the early 1990s, many Falash Mura attempted to join the wave, claiming they were Jewish by ancestry.
The number of Falash Mura continued to grow, leading the Israeli government to believe they were not Jews, but just wanted to leave famine-plagued Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Jewish activists have been lobbying for the Falash Mura, maintaining that many of them were forced to convert or never really abandoned their Jewish faith.
In 1998, after bringing a group of 4,000 Falash Mura, most of whom had relatives in Israel, the government changed its policy, reviewing each Ethiopian immigration request on an individual basis.
According to Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, the Falash Mura have no right to immigrate to Israel.
“Not one of them is eligible” under the Law of Return, “which itself is often considered too liberal,” he said.
A spokesman for the Shas Party, Itzhak Sudri, reacted angrily.
“Since when does the Absorption Ministry decide who is a Jew?” he said.
Shas initiated its plan to rescue the Falash Mora more than a year ago, when the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, issued a ruling calling for “saving the souls of Israel.”
Unable to prove any lineage to Judaism, many Falash Mura have begun to study Hebrew and Judaism.
The government has suggested circumventing the Law of Return with regard to the Falash Mura, indicating that the group could be brought over under the seldom-used Law of Entry.
In the past, the government used the Law of Entry to grant citizenship to foreigners for humanitarian reasons and for family reunification.
Israel’s Law of Return allows immigration for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, along with his or her spouse, children, grandchildren and their spouses.
Knesset member Adisu Massala, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, concedes that the Falash Mura are not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.
But he maintains that family reunification is reason enough to bring them over.
“Anyway,” he said “the arguments about the Law of Return are baseless. Some have children here. Others are linked by blood to Ethiopian Jewry.”
Because many Ethiopian immigrants often arrive in Israel with only the clothes on their back, must enter conversion institutes and training courses, and receive 95 percent grants on housing, their immigration and absorption costs are very high.
The Finance Ministry estimates that the process costs $100,000 for each Ethiopian immigrant.
Ever since Yosef issued the ruling, Shas has been lobbying for a government decision on the fate of the Falash Mura.
Yishai had sought a decision before the nation’s Jan. 28 elections.
But Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein, concerned that a decision could constitute a form of political propaganda, ordered Yishai to postpone the issue several times in recent months.
Sudri, the Shas spokesman, contends that despite pronouncements by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Absorption Ministry to the contrary, “the Falash Mura are Jewish.”
“They led double lives” after their conversion to Christianity, “but they remained Jewish on the inside,” he said.
Shas is concerned that the ministerial committee appointed to find a way to bring the immigrants, though headed by Yishai, is filled with those staunchly opposed to the Falash Mura’s mass emigration, he said.
Shas also charges that “there is certainly a racist motivation” among those opposing the emigration, he said. “At least that is how the Ethiopian community feels.”
Massala echoed the sentiment.
If 23,000 French, American and British people were waiting to immigrate, he asked, “Do you even think we would be having this debate? No, but since we are talking about black Ethiopian Jews, the situation is different.”
Edelstein dismisses the claims of racism as preposterous.
“There needs to be something that ties the Falash Mura to the Jewish people,” he said.
“If a line is not drawn, there will always be Ethiopians desiring to leave the terrible conditions of Ethiopia for life in Israel,” he said.
Mike Rosenberg, director general of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah and Absorption Department, described the wretched conditions in which the Falash Mura live.
“They are in worse condition since they left the rural areas,” where they lived as subsistence farmers before coming to Addis and Gondar.
“In the cities, they live in mud huts with up to 15 people packed into each room. There they suffer malnutrition and disease.”
Some Israeli officials say Yishai’s call for the immediate emigration of the Falash Mura is unrealistic.
They say it runs up against two formidable obstacles — budgetary constraints and tacit agreements between Israel and Ethiopia that there would be no more massive airlifts such as those of Operation Solomon in 1991, when 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel during a 24-hour period.
In its contacts with Israeli officials, the Ethiopian government has indicated that it will only allow the Falash Mura to emigrate if they are brought over “quietly.”
Since 1998, the Jewish Agency has treaded lightly in order to soothe the skittish Ethiopian government. Weekly flights from Addis Ababa have brought a steady flow of between 50 and 100 immigrants per week.
Sunday’s Cabinet “decision will definitely cause damage in terms of our relations with Ethiopia. We must not start airlifts,” Edelstein said.
Meanwhile, there are already concerns within Israel’s Ethiopian community that the government will fail to enact Sunday’s decision.
“The government must act. People are starving there. They are abused by the Christian majority, treated as traitors,” Massala said. “If the government fails to back words with deeds, it could be a historic mistake.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.