Critics Charge Racism As Jewish State Places ‘Quota’ on Ethiopians: Activists Say Blacks’ Plight Ignored As Aliya Dollars Flow to Russia; Ethnic Bean Counting, or Prudent Policy-making?
Critics are claiming racism is behind what they say is the Israeli
government’s establishment of a 400-person monthly quota on immigration
from Ethiopia — even for those who qualify under the Law of Return.
Ethiopian Jewry activists complain that the quota and what they cite as a
lack of humanitarian aid from American Jewish philanthropies are doubly
offensive because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent calls for a mass
immigration of Jews from Argentina, France, Australia and South Africa.
The plight of Ethiopian Jews is being ignored, activists charge, even as
Israel and the quasi governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, the main
overseas recipient of monies raised by federations within the United Jewish
Communities system, are investing millions of dollars to encourage
immigration from those countries and the former Soviet Union.
“This is the first time that there is a quota on an ethnic basis,” said
Avraham Neguise, head of the Israel-based advocacy group South Wing to
Zion. “In Ethiopia they created an ethnic quota. It’s clear discrimination
against black Jews.”
The monthly quota is part of Israel’s plan for addressing the plight of an
estimated 22,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopians who either converted to
Christianity from Judaism under duress or are the descendants of such
people. Government officials have sought to block or slow their immigration
to Israel, even though most members of the community are believed to have
abandoned all vestiges of Christianity several years ago in favor of Jewish
A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, the office charged with deciding
who qualifies for immigration, acknowledged the ministry’s plan to bring in
400 people a month in an email to the Forward, but did not use the word
quota. Activists expressed little confidence that the government will
change the policy, despite a resolution passed last month by the Knesset’s
immigration and absorption committee urging an increase in the immigration
rate to 800 to 1,000 per month. The same resolution calls on the Jewish
Agency and American philanthropies to increase aid to the Falash Mura, and
on Israel to bring all members of the community who have Jewish ancestors
and have returned to Judaism.
Mr. Neguise also charged that the Israeli government is failing to fulfill
even a 400-per-month quota. Mr. Neguise said that 1,000 people currently
waiting to immigrate have already been approved by the Interior Ministry,
and yet less than 300 immigrants a month are being brought to Israel.
A Jewish Agency spokesman, Yehuda Weinraub, countered that only 500 are
“There is no cap of 400 immigrants imposed by the Jewish Agency,” Mr.
Weinraub wrote in an email.
The agency is responsible for bringing immigrants to Israel once they have
been approved by the Interior Ministry. Any delays after immigrants are
approved, Mr. Weinraub added, are due to limited space on commercial
Ethiopian Airlines flights to Israel.
Israeli officials defend what they have acknowledged is a deliberate
approach to the situation on several grounds, including the need to secure
an adequate absorption budget and the desire not to embarrass the Ethiopian
government with a massive airlift. Also, Israeli officials have said, since
Ethiopia is a famine-plagued country with huge numbers believed to be
seeking a way to leave the country, Israel must conduct thorough background
checks to assure that applicants truly qualify under the Law of Return.
The historic Israeli law, designed to encourage Jewish immigration, allows
anyone with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent to immigrate to
Israel along with their families. It is believed to have paved the way for
tens or hundreds of thousands of non-Jews to immigrate from the former
Soviet Union during the 1990s.
Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that an exception to the Law of Return may
be made in the case of a Jew who has willingly converted to Christianity,
and is therefore presumed to have left Judaism. But Ethiopian activists, as
well as their backers in Israel and the United States, have argued that
this exception should not apply to the Falash Mura because they are now
living as Jews. Members of Israel’s Orthodox-controlled religious
establishment and branches of all the major American synagogue movements
have said that the community should be permitted to come to Israel. Even
Mr. Sharon, prior to becoming prime minister, expressed similar views.
The high court sidestepped the issue last year, when it ruled that the
government must permit each of the estimated 22,000 Falash Mura waiting in
Addis Ababa, Gondar and several remote villages to file an immigration
application. Sources familiar with the situation said that since the
ruling, officials at the Interior Ministry have complained that the
government has not provided a sufficient budget to increase the rate of
Prior to the ruling, the only way for members of the Falash Mura community
to submit an immigration application was through a relative already in
Israel. Activists said the restriction was not applied to would-be
immigrants from any other country, but the measure was defended by
government officials as the most efficient method for preventing fraud.
Though Israel has stated several times during the past decade that no more
people remained in Ethiopia who qualified to immigrate under the Law of
Return, activists said about 15,000 Falash Mura have immigrated since 1991,
many under the Law of Return.
Although rabbinic canon law does not require an apostate to undergo a full
conversion, virtually all of the 15,000 Falash Mura already settled in
Israel have either converted or are studying to convert under the auspices
of Israel’s Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate. They have done so,
activists say, to avoid any legal or social difficulties.
Mr. Neguise and other activists are also upset over the failure of the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to increase its activities in
Ethiopia. The JDC, the second largest recipient of overseas allocations
from Jewish federations after the Jewish Agency, currently spends $660,000
a year providing the Ethiopian community with emergency food distribution
and emergency medical treatment, in addition to screening young children
for disease and malnutrition. The United Jewish Communities, the central
body of American Jewish philanthropic federations, is working with several
entities, including the Joint, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli
government, to organize what is being called the Ethiopian National
Project, a 9-year, $600 million effort to improve the integration of
Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society.
Under a new system adopted by the UJC for funding overseas relief programs,
individual federations may choose whether or not to support individual
programs of the Joint Distribution Committee, which historically had been
funded through a central mechanism. Last year the Ethiopian aid program won
support from only three communities, Boston, St. Louis and Philadelphia,
for a total allocation of just $200,000 dollars, forcing the JDC to cover a
$460,000 deficit, a JDC official said.
The UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York supplied a separate
$250,000 grant for what turned out to be two food distributions.
UJA-Federation president John Ruskay said his organization plans to
allocate an additional $40,000 through the JDC for feeding the elderly and
Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the Joint Distribution
Committee, told the Forward that his organization would prefer that any
donations for increased food distribution be directed to the North American
Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which currently provides schooling and one
meal a day to nearly 5,000 students in Ethiopia. The JDC, Mr. Schneider
added, is currently encouraging a donor to establish a vocational program
to train some of the potential immigrants to perform jobs previously held
by Palestinian laborers.
Mr. Schneider said that activists were unfairly blaming his organization
for the current humanitarian crisis in the urban areas of Addis Ababa and
Gondar. JDC officials say that they have attempted to construct a support
system that keeps people alive and relatively healthy, but without
supplying so many benefits that others are encouraged to leave their
villages or to file fraudulent claims.
In large part, he said, the blame for the current crisis rests with a group
of activists who encouraged 18,000 of the remaining 22,000 Falash Mura to
leave their rural villages in 1998 for the cities in what he called a ploy
to pressure Israel. Still, Mr. Schneider added, the key issue has been the
Israeli government’s failure to offer applicants a straightforward
“For years we waited for Israel to finish the job,” Mr. Schneider said.
“They didn’t. We’ve been involved in this for 10 years, with a finger in
the dike. And now it seems we may be part of the problem: Keeping the
finger in the dike may be prolonging the situation.”