Ethiopian Israelis plead for relatives

TEL AVIV — Hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv over the weekend to raise public awareness of the plight of thousands of their relatives they say remain stranded in Ethiopia.

Organizers of the meeting appealed to Prime Minister Ehud Barak to personally intervene to bring the group of immigrant hopefuls — often referred to as Falash Mura — to Israel.

“We called on the prime minister to personally intervene to bring the entire community here immediately,” said Avraham Neguise, director of the Ethiopian advocacy group, South Wing to Zion, that organized the conference.

“The lists are ready, people have been checked,” he said, referring to a census Neguise says his group has compiled of members of the Falash Mura community living in what are universally recognized to be squalid conditions.

The number of those waiting vary widely, with estimates ranging from 11,000 to 25,000.

“If it wants, the government can bring them over now in a short amount of time,” Neguise said.

Israel’s ability to mobilize immigration operations from Ethiopia has been proven in mass airlifts in 1984 and 1991, in follow-up operations in the early 1990s and again this summer, when — largely due to pressure from American groups — about 1,400 more people were brought to Israel from the Kwara region of northern Ethiopia. Most of the immigrants from Kwara were Jews who had been left behind in previous evacuations.

The Israeli government’s position on the Falash Mura, however, is more complicated.

Officially, Israel says that the arrival in Israel of the remaining Kwara Jews during the next few months will mark the end of Ethiopian aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Israel.

Those still there, which Neguise and other advocates refer to as Beta Israel to stress their Jewishness, are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity. Most say they want to return to Judaism and are practicing Jewish rituals.

Israel does not recognize the Falash Mura as Jews, even though several thousand were brought to Israel in the early 1990s as part of Operation Solomon in 1991.

Since then, the number of Falash Mura seeking to immigrate to Israel has increased dramatically. Thousands have streamed into the urban centers of Gondar and Addis Ababa in what they hoped would be the first step in moving to Israel.

Israel says that the only ones who would qualify to come would do so under the Law of Return, which holds that any person with one Jewish parent or grandparent is entitled to make aliyah.

Falash Mura living in Israel who convert to Judaism can initiate immigration applications for family members in Ethiopia.

Five Knesset members who attended Sunday’s gathering pledged to campaign in the parliament for government action on the issue.

“We have to make order of all this and just send over large teams to review applications and determine who can come,” said Knesset member Avi Yehezkel of One Israel, who along with Eliezer Sandberg of Shinui visited Addis Ababa and Gondar in August.

At the gathering of more than 700 people in Tel Aviv, members of the Ethiopian community described conditions in those areas.

Neguise said the Ethiopian Jews lack adequate food and medical supplies. He charged the Israeli government of a discriminatory policy with regard to Ethiopian aliyah.

“We are not engineers, we are not doctors, we are not rich, we are poor,” Neguise said in an interview, adding that “color is playing a vital role” in the limited attention Israel is giving to processing immigration applications from Ethiopia.

Avi Granot, Israel’s former ambassador to Ethiopia, denied that color had anything to do with the situation, saying that “we are not dealing with Jews” and therefore, “racial discrimination is not a relevant argument from the start.”

Tens of thousands of people “believe that just by claiming to be Falash Mura that would grant them the right of aliyah, which is not the case,” said Granot, who currently serves as the minister for public and interreligious affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Having a Jewish parent or grandparent, even one who is a recent convert, he said, is the only way the Falash Mura now waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar can be considered for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return.

Approving the relatives of the estimated 75,000 Israelis of Ethiopian origin, he said, is an “ongoing process.”

According to advocates for the Falash Mura, applications of 150 families have recently been approved.

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