U.S. donors want to bring Falashmura to Israel – the government is less keen

Last Thursday 80 new immigrants from Ethiopia landed in Israel.

The immigrants, who arrived by Ethiopian Airlines, were preceded by two groups: first, about 50 American Jews, members of a donor mission that has just returned from a tour of Ethiopia sponsored by the American Jewish establishment. Exhausted but excited, they waited for the immigrants on the tarmac.

The next group to descend consisted of Israelis for whom the flight was merely the final leg of a regular, commercial flight. They glanced at the Americans before rushing to the buses that would take them to the terminal. “Look at those Americans,” one said to his companion, “they make so much noise out of a few immigrants.”

Finally, the immigrants came down the steps, wearing holiday clothing provided by the Jewish Agency. Their faces unreadable, they hurried toward the old terminal. The immigrants are Falashmura, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity between the end of the 19th century and the 1970s. Their fight to immigrate to Israel began in 1991 with Operation Shlomo, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to leave them in Ethiopia.

A cabinet committee appointed in 1992 by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government decided to permit members of the community to immigrate for purposes of family reunification with relatives who had already come to Israel. About 25,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since 1993 in this way, far from the public eye.

No planeload of Ethiopian immigrants receives the grand welcome accorded to groups of immigrants from France or the United States.

According to community officials, between 11,000 and 13,000 Falashmura are still waiting to immigrate. At the current rate of 300 a month at most, it will take years before the entire community is in Israel.

The two government resolutions to bring the remainder of the Falashmura to Israel have never been implemented. People involved in the issue say the thin stream of immigrants represents a compromise between two different, nearly contradictory, positions, that of the Israeli government, on one hand, and the U.S. Jewish establishment on the other. Ethiopian immigrants in Israel say this political game is nearly insignificant.

Cheri Morgan, a Jewish donor from Los Angeles, sees immigration from Ethiopia as the essence of Zionism. It is about saving Jews, she says, “and this is what Israel is all about.” Morgan toured Ethiopia last week as part of Operation Promise, launched last September by United Jewish Communities to raise money for aliyah from Ethiopia.

Gail Reiss, vice-president for development of UJC, says the issue is high on the agenda for young donors who see it as a combination of helping Jews in need and as a case of social justice. It is bound up in the charged history of relations between whites and blacks in the United States.

“Jews in the U.S. care a lot about Ethiopian Jews because they don’t want the mistakes that were made in the U.S. to recur,” Reiss said. Since 2004 the UJC has supported bringing the Falashmura to Israel, and the organization’s leaders regular bring up the issue in their meetings with the prime minister and cabinet ministers.

In recent years a few prominent Israeli rabbis have voiced their support for bringing the community to Israel, citing religious rulings according to which Jews who convert are still considered Jewish. In February 2002 Rabbi Shlomo Amar ruled that Falashmura whose fathers had not married Christian women are “from the seed of Israel” and should be brought to Israel and returned to Judaism.

A year later the Interior Ministry ordered the acceleration of the process by which the eligibility of community members is examined and those deemed eligible are brought to Israel.

In January 2005 the cabinet passed another resolution to bring the rest of the Falashmura to Israel, and even set the end of 2007 as the deadline for implementing the decision. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once again instructed the Interior Ministry to expedite the examination process. He also ordered the immigration rate to double to 600 per month.

Little has changed since the last government resolution. The only group that has demonstrated willingness to carry it out is the UJC, which has so far raised $58 million, two-thirds of which will be used to bring the Ethiopians to Israel and to facilitate their absorption.