Increased pressure from officials of American Jewish organizations is driving preliminary talks on a new deal to bring thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel before famine takes a heavy toll on the community remaining in Ethiopia.
Coming on the eve of a federation-sponsored trip to Ethiopia, federation leaders, advocates for Ethiopian Jews, representatives of Jewish humanitarian groups and Israeli government officials met recently in Jerusalem to discuss new ways of expediting the emigration process for thousands of Falash Mura left in Ethiopia. The Falash Mura are Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, often under social pressure, but who have resumed practicing Judaism and whose Jewishness is accepted by all three major Jewish religious denominations, including Israel's chief rabbinate.
Critics of deals to bring the Falash Mura to Israel charge that many of those left in Ethiopia are claiming Jewish ancestry merely to escape the famine and hardship of Africa.
In a landmark decision last February, Israel's Cabinet voted to immediately verify the Jewish ancestry of approximately 19,000 Falash Mura so that they could be brought to Israel. Since 1998, Israel has absorbed about 2,500 Falash Mura immigrants annually.
In the months since the Cabinet decision, however, little action has been taken, and the verification process has stalled, prompting advocates for Ethiopian Jewry to blame Israel Interior Minister Avraham Poraz for foot- dragging. Poraz, who is responsible for implementing the Cabinet decision, declined to comment on the issue.
At the heart of the debate is the exact number of Falash Mura left in Ethiopia and the cost to Israel of absorbing the immigrants.
Participants said the closed-door meeting in Jerusalem on Oct. 23 was the first time an agreement was proposed with the potential to satisfy both skeptical Israeli officials like Poraz -- who fear that bringing the Falash Mura to Israel will open the floodgates to an unknown number of Ethiopian immigrants with dubious claims to Jewish ancestry -- and Jewish activists seeking to rescue Ethiopian Jews from famine and bring them to the Jewish homeland.
"At the meeting, a proposal was brought to the table that reasonable people believe should satisfy all reasonable objections to the issue," said one participant, who asked not to be identified. That view was confirmed by other participants of the meeting, most of whom refused to comment publicly about the discussions.
The preliminary proposal raised at the meeting would involve expediting the Falash Mura emigration, while guaranteeing that no more than those already accounted for are allowed to come to Israel under the process. U.S. Jewish groups would help bankroll the Falash Mura's absorption in Israel, and the Jewish humanitarian groups working in Ethiopia would shut down operations there.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of only two Jewish groups running relief operations in Ethiopia, said it would welcome such a deal.
"We would be happy to close down if the Falash Mura issue were resolved," said Amir Shaviv, JDC assistant executive vice president. "We're there to maintain medical services. If these people were to go to Israel, we wouldn't need to be there anymore."
The exact details of the proposed agreement have yet to be worked out, and it remains to be seen how quickly a deal could be implemented or whether, in fact, there exists sufficient political will to see a deal through. Until a deal is worked out to enforce the Cabinet decision, Ethiopia advocates said, the risks of death and disease for the thousands remaining in Ethiopia are growing.
"The Falash Mura have always lived in the most deplorable of conditions, and now there is famine and a malaria epidemic, which is probably the most virulent in history," said Ricki Lieberman, chief operating officer and director of public affairs at the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).
"I hope that all of these factors are coming together to make the Israeli government understand that it must act effectively and quickly, and that the American Jewish community must help NACOEJ feed and help this community stay alive until they can get to Israel," she said.
The conference helps run relief compounds for the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa and Gondar. The group provides food and Jewish education at the compounds, and the JDC provides medical care and nutritional support for children. The groups do not provide the Falash Mura -- most of whom came to the cities from remote villages in hopes of emigrating to Israel -- with housing.
In Israel, advocates for the Ethiopians are pursuing legal action to force Poraz to accelerate the emigration process. But the prospect of an agreement raised at the recent meeting between Poraz, Jewish humanitarian groups working in Ethiopia and U.S. federation leaders could render such a move superfluous.
Those at the Oct. 23 meeting included Poraz; Stephen Hoffman, the president of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) federation umbrella group; Sallai Meridor, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel; and Shai Hermesh, the group's treasurer; NACOEJ officials; representatives of the New York and Philadelphia Jewish federations; JDC representatives; and others.
Participants said the meeting was convened at the request of Hoffman, who is facing pressure from Jewish federations to push Israeli officials on the issue. Hoffman declined to comment for this story.
"The federation world is trying to push UJC to advocate on behalf of the Falash Mura," said Sheryl Fox Adler, director of Israel and other international concerns at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. "When the famine really started to take hold in Ethiopia, many in our community became concerned."
Some U.S. federation leaders are planning to visit Ethiopia on a fact-finding mission this month. Observers said the heightened interest by American Jewish federation leaders on the Falash Mura is helping propel action by the Israeli government -- and, specifically, by Poraz.
"Now he's not facing a fringe group like NACOEJ but the weight of the American Jewish community," said one participant in the Oct. 23 meeting. "That's a sea change. That was not the case before this meeting."
Earlier this year, several U.S. congressmen admonished Poraz on the issue, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
When 4,000 Falash Mura were brought to Israel in 1998, many officials thought they constituted the last group of Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and a board member of the Jewish Agency and the JDC. Eckstein attended the Oct. 23 meeting. However, another 14,000 people turned up at the compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, and the Jewish relief operations in Ethiopia continued.
In 1999, government surveyors counted 26,000 people served by the compounds, but a few thousand have since emigrated to Israel. Estimates of the number of Falash Mura left in Ethiopia range from 15,000 to 24,000, with about 19,000 at the compounds.
February's Cabinet decision followed rulings by leading Israeli rabbis that the Falash Mura are Jewish. It called for bringing the Falash Mura to Israel not under the Law of Return -- which grants automatic citizenship to Jews, their children and grandchildren -- but under the seldom-used Law of Entry, which has been used to grant citizenship to foreigners for humanitarian reasons and family reunification. That move enabled Israel to impose a requirement on the would-be immigrants to prove maternal linkage to Jewish ancestry; hence the need to verify their claims of Jewishness.
The Finance Ministry estimated that it costs $100,000 to absorb each Ethiopian immigrant, meaning that it would cost more than $2 billion to absorb all the Falash Mura currently at the compounds in Ethiopia. Shlomo Molla, a Jewish Agency consultant on Ethiopian immigration, said the estimated costs are highly inflated. Others say the figure is closer to $25,000 per immigrant.
In any case, advocates said, the cost would be borne over many years, U.S. Jewish groups would offer assistance and Israel has enough money, even with its current recession, to absorb the immigrants.
"It's not a question of money," Eckstein said. "If these people are brought, the government certainly is going to look to groups like the UJC and the worldwide Jewish community for assistance."
Irwin Cotler, a member of Canada's Parliament and a long-time legal adviser to Ethiopian Jews, was at the Oct. 23 meeting. He said the question at stake is, "Will it happen through an agreement now to bring them with all deliberate speed, or only after another series of court cases, and more people die and more kids are undernourished. That is the moral choice before us."