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Ethiopian advocates push for 8,500 more olim

by Ben Harris

December 20, 2007 | 7:00 pm

With Israel's Interior Ministry on the verge of bringing its Ethiopian aliyah operation to a close, a coalition of Ethiopian advocacy groups is pressing the government to add another 8,500 would-be immigrants for the ministry's consideration.

For now it seems nothing short of a court order will force the Interior Ministry to screen the additional Ethiopians for aliyah eligibility under the special terms granted to the Falash Mura -- Ethiopians who claim links to Jewish progenitors.

The advocacy groups say Israel is shirking its obligations under a February 2003 government decision to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura to Israel, and they have petitioned the Supreme Court to take action.

The Interior Ministry says it has fulfilled its obligations, and that the 8,500 Ethiopians represent a new group beyond the 26,000 specified in '03.

"This stems from the decision that we don't open lists to additional people," said Sabine Hadad, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman. "Our job is to implement the government's decision of 2003, and we have done that."

Avraham Neguise, the director of South Wing to Zion and a leader of the advocacy coalition, said Israel is drawing an arbitrary line that is dividing families.

"By deciding to draw the line between parents who have already come and brothers and sisters, they are cutting the live flesh of the community," Neguise said. "The government is lying and cheating the Israeli people and the Jewish people."

The Supreme Court has given no indication when, or whether, it will hear the petition, which has been pending for several years.

The dispute over the 8,500 Ethiopians cuts to the heart of the controversy over Falash Mura immigration to Israel.

Many observers -- including Israeli and Ethiopian government officials and some Jewish aid groups -- long have warned that Israel's efforts to end the mass immigration of Ethiopians would be stymied by advocates seeking to bring additional Ethiopians to Israel.

Those fears were realized once before, in 1998, when Israeli officials welcomed what they thought was the last planeload of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, only to find another 8,000 Ethiopian petitioners knocking on their doors several days later.

The 2003 government decision and subsequent decisions by the Israeli Cabinet were aimed at bringing those new petitioners, who soon swelled to some 26,000, while putting a cap on the olim (immigrants under the Law of Return). The cap was based on a 1999 census conducted in Ethiopia by a former Israeli official, David Efrati.

Israeli officials' insistence on a cap underscored fears that Ethiopians with dubious claims to Jewish ancestry would exploit the system to escape Africa's desperate poverty for a better life in Israel.

Unlike the Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively, the Falash Mura were not practicing Jews until very recently. That has made it difficult to ascertain their claims of links -- either by heritage or marriage -- to Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity more than a century ago to escape economic and social discrimination.

The Falash Mura, most of whom practiced Christianity until a few years ago, must agree to embrace Judaism as a condition of their aliyah. They currently are being brought to Israel at a rate of 300 per month.

Once in Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel teaches them Judaism, houses them in absorption centers and helps them adjust to life in Israel. After a year or two they are given housing grants to purchase or rent homes. The government estimates that each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state an average of $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime.

The Interior Ministry has been systematically going through the list of Falash Mura petitioners, which is based on the 1999 census.

That unofficial census originally counted some 26,000 or so Ethiopian candidates for aliyah, but the Interior Ministry said the list shrunk to some 17,000 once the Israeli government made clear its criteria for coming to Israel. In intervening years the list grew by some 3,000 as a result of natural growth, the ministry said.

Now the ministry says it is a week or two away from completion, and only about 1,500 to 2,000 eligible petitioners remain.

"As soon as the eligibility process is done, the project is over," Hadad, the ministry spokeswoman, said.

The advocacy groups charge the ministry is arbitrarily excluding 8,500 people from those counted in the 1999 census -- people who remained in their rural villages rather than going to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa, where the other petitioners congregated while their cases were being reviewed.

"The people on the 1999 list included people in villages, but they're simply not included in the Interior Ministry's numbers and were not permitted to apply for emigration," said Joe Feit, a New York lawyer involved with several of the Falash Mura advocacy groups.

Feit said that in the last three or four years, those 8,500 villagers have left their rural homes for Gondar, where Jewish aid compounds offer schooling, some employment and some food aid to the Falash Mura.

The compounds, which do not include housing, are funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and run by a local proxy group headed by Getu Zemene, an Ethiopian who himself applied for aliyah but was deemed ineligible by Israeli authorities.

NACOEJ has not directly run the compounds since 2005, when the group was barred from operating in the country.

The NACOEJ-funded activities are supported primarily by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) federation umbrella group, which sends NACOEJ some $68,000 per month for a program at the compound that provides food to children and pregnant mothers. UJC also is lining up federation support to construct a school in Gondar -- a move some aid officials called puzzling, since Israel is on schedule to bring all eligible olim by late next year.

UJC officials declined to comment for this story.

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