18,000 new Ethiopians add burden for Israel

TEL AVIV — 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 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 religious 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. Their numbers 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 on their behalf, however, maintaining that many of them were forced to convert or never really abandoned their Jewish faith.

Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein has said 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.”

Shas Party spokesman Itzhak Sudri reacted angrily. “Since when does the Absorption Ministry decide who is a Jew?”

Shas initiated its plan to rescue the Falash Mura 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 by bringing the group over under the seldom-used Law of Entry, which has been used 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, conceded that the Falash Mura are not Jewish according to halachah, but said family reunification is reason enough to bring them over. “Some have children here. Others are linked by blood to Ethiopian Jewry.”

Because many Ethiopian immigrants 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 high — costing as much as $100,000 for each immigrant.

Shas has been lobbying for a government decision on their fate.

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 dismissed such claims.

Yishai’s call for the immediate emigration runs into two formidable obstacles: budgetary constraints and tacit agreements between Israel and Ethiopia that there would be no more massive airlift.


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