Bring the Falash Mura Home to Israel

So what do Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Canada’s Minister of Justice, two US Congressmen, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the head of the Reform movement all share in common? Over the past year, each has expressed support for expediting the aliyah of the remaining 20,000 Falash Mura to Israel. Descendants of Ethiopian Jews converted to Christianity, many against their will, the Falash Mura now wish to rejoin the Jewish people. With such an impressive constellation of figures offering their encouragement, and with the Ethiopian authorities themselves not raising objections, what then could possibly be standing in the way of fulfilling this historic and Zionist mission? Why, the Israeli government, of course!

Sure, a steady flow of Falash Mura are allowed to make aliyah each month, in accordance with the February 16, 2003 cabinet decision to bring the community to Israel. But despite pleas from the Jewish Agency, the Knesset Aliyah and Absorption Committee and American Jewish leaders, the government has steadfastly refused to increase the number being allowed to come here on an annual basis. And so, this past Monday, Ethiopian Jewry activists found themselves in the halls of Israel’s Supreme Court, essentially trying to force the government to live up to its own decision and speed up the Falash Mura aliyah.

Earlier this year, in February 2004, a committee headed by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz chose to impose a quota on Falash Mura immigration, setting the limit at approximately 300 per month. As a result, according to Ministry of Absorption figures, just 370 Ethiopians arrived in August, 309 in September and only 197 in October. With some 20,000 still in the aliyah pipeline, that means it will take at least another 6 to 7 years for the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to be brought home to Israel. Hence, families will continue to be divided, and potential immigrants, whom everyone agrees have the right to come here and will eventually be brought, might have to wait until 2010 or later to be reunited with their loved ones. This simply makes no sense, even in the bizarre bureaucratic world in which we live.

If the government has committed itself to bringing the Falash Mura here, and both the Chief Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency are supportive of the move, then why on earth should thousands of immigrants have to wait until the next decade to come? And if Israel is truly looking to attract more immigrants to its shores, as the Prime Minister repeatedly states, then why are quotas being imposed on Ethiopian immigration? On the surface, the government claims the reason is purely financial. On various occasions, both Poraz and Absorption Minister Tzippi Livni have asserted that it costs approximately $100,000 on average to absorb each Falash Mura immigrant. Hence, they argue, to bring in more than the allotted number of 300 Ethiopians per month would mean additional expenditures, money the government says it simply doesn’t have. Hogwash.

To begin with, it is not entirely clear how Poraz and Livni came up with the magic number of $100,000 per immigrant, but even if it is true, do we really want to start attaching a price tag to new immigrants? Is that what Zionism is all about? Moreover, as any first-year economics student knows, mass immigration, generally serves as an engine of economic growth, one that spurs expansion across a wide range of fields and industries. So Poraz and Livni need not worry, as the country’s investment in additional new immigrants will eventually pay off. Ironically enough, on the same day that the government was pleading poverty before the Supreme Court, a couple of blocks away over at the Knesset, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was busy promising hundreds of millions of shekels to two political parties to elicit their support in the vote on the state budget.

With those same funds, estimated to be some 410 million shekels, the government could increase Ethiopian aliyah by more than third, helping to reunite friends and family that have been waiting for years to do so. The need to accelerate the Falash Mura aliyah is critical, as thousands of them are living in decrepit conditions. Just last month, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report that Ethiopia’s overall food supply situation remains highly precarious with some eight million people currently dependent on food aid. Groups such as the Famine Early Warning System Network are sounding the alarm, saying that the number of Ethiopians requiring food aid could increase from the current 7.8 million to up to over 12 million in 2005 (Reuters, Nov. 4).

Now is not the time to quibble over how much it might cost to absorb the Falash Mura. The government, together with world Jewry, needs to speed up their aliyah and bring them home. It is not a lack of funds that is preventing this from happening, but a lack of will. The Falash Mura are our brothers and sisters, and they are calling out to us to return them to the fold. History is offering us an opportunity to restore these precious souls to the people of Israel. We must act now, and help them to complete their long journey home.


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