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Jewish Journal

Post-war belt-tightening: Israel could cut Falash Mura dreams in half

by Uriel Heilman

September 14, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Israel's Finance Ministry is proposing substantial cuts to Ethiopian immigration next year as part of widespread belt-tightening following Israel's war in Lebanon.
 
The plan, announced on Sept. 5 as part of Israel's proposed budget for 2007, would halve the number of Ethiopian immigrants brought to Israel per month, to 150 from the current rate of 300.
 
If adopted, the change would represent a major setback to U.S. backers of Ethiopian aliyah, who launched a $100 million campaign last year designed in part to pressure the government to increase the rate of Ethiopian immigration. Israel's Cabinet decided in March 2005 to double the rate of Ethiopian immigration to 600 people per month, but the decision was never implemented.
 
"I hope the Jewish leaders overseas will understand this breaks all the rules, all the agreements, all the understandings," said Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian-Israeli politician and head of the World Zionist Organization's department of Zionist issues. "We won't let this happen. It's a scandal."
 
The proposal to slash Ethiopian immigration signals the failure of a complex agreement reached a year and a half ago to complete mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.
 
That agreement would have seen the takeover of Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the end of lobbying campaigns for immigration by the main Jewish advocacy group in Ethiopia and the raising of more than $100 million by North American Jews to help Israel foot the bill for the airlift and absorption of up to 20,000 additional Ethiopians.
 
The collaborative effort was intended to bring the mass Ethiopian aliyah to a close in under three years.
 
Now it seems the estimated 12,000 remaining Ethiopian petitioners for aliyah -- known as Falash Mura -- will have to wait even longer in shantytowns in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa before they can emigrate to the Jewish state, if at all.
 
"I think it's morally reprehensible," Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said of the proposed budget cuts. "We're going to obviously ask the government not to go in that direction."
 
The Israeli government repeatedly has delayed implementing the decision to accelerate the aliyah, with various ministries shifting the blame. Under the current budget proposal, an increase in the aliyah rate wouldn't be reconsidered until the 2008 budget discussions.
 
Last year, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group of North American federations launched a campaign called Operation Promise to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and motivate the Israeli government to move ahead with its March 2005 decision.
 
The UJC raised about half of the amount before the campaign stalled and was overshadowed this summer by special emergency fundraising for the war with Hezbollah.
 
"Even considering a cut from the current level of 300 a month would be unacceptable," said Howard Reiger, UJC's president and CEO. "UJC and the federations will continue their partnership with the government to help populations most in need, including the Falash Mura. We hope and expect that the government of Israel will keep its commitments in this regard as well."
 
Some U.S. Jewish leaders say they're not sure whether the proposed slash in the Ethiopian immigration budget is a legitimate cutback resulting from the war or just an excuse to avoid bringing more Ethiopians to Israel.
 
One federation official said he's beginning to doubt Israel's commitment to accepting the Falash Mura as immigrants.
 
"I think there will be great skepticism that this is not about something beyond money," said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. "I think many of us are aware of the complexity and costs involved, but the signal that will be sent if the number is in fact reduced will, in my judgment, weaken the partnership with world Jewry."
 
"Every prime minister has said to us over and over again that the issue of aliyah is a No. 1 priority," Ruskay said. "The rabbinate has indicated that these are Jews. Ultimately, this is an issue in the hands of the Israeli public and the Israeli political system."
 
The government's reticence to bring the Falash Mura to Israel has been both economic and ideological -- and, some charge, racist.
 
Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. The Ethiopians are considered far more expensive than other immigrants, since the background they're coming from is so different than Israel, and they need extensive support services after immigrating.
 
Many Israelis also doubt the Falash Mura's Jewish credentials, despite their being classified as Jews by Israel's Chief Rabbinate and the three major religious denominations of American Judaism.
 
The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Now they have begun returning to Judaism -- in order to immigrate to the Jewish state along with their extended families, some charge.
 
Given the state of record-keeping in Ethiopia, the Falash Mura's Jewish pedigree is virtually impossible to prove. Unlike Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, the Falash Mura have not continuously maintained Jewish traditions and practice, so Israel has been accepting only those Falash Mura who can demonstrate a familial connection with Ethiopians already in Israel. Some of those now coming to Israel have no claims to Jewish heritage at all and are linked to descendants of Jews only by marriage.
 
It's not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, though aid officials say the number is probably not more than 12,000.
 
The longer it takes Israel to bring the current group of Falash Mura, the more petitioners for aliyah there will be, warn Israeli and American Jewish officials stationed in Ethiopia.  
"It seems to me they don't know what they're doing," Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, an Ethiopian Israeli advocacy and aid group, said of the Israeli government.
 
"It's just Jewish abuse," Neguise said. The Falash Mura "are in a tough situation, the government took a decision, told them that by the end of 2007 they would bring everyone, and they continue to live there in difficult circumstances. Instead of accelerating the pace, they are going backward. It's total disregard for the community."
 
To learn more about Ethiopian Jews, visit the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.
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