Petition Seeks Law of Return for Falash Mura

A new petition to the High Court of Justice demands that Ethiopian Falash Mura be recognized as Jewish and immediately brought to Israel under the Law of Return. Falash Mura _ descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity – are currently limited to immigrating at a rate of 300 per month under the Law of Entry. The Law of Entry allows for family reunification, rather than return, and is extended to those the government considers Jewish.

Application of the Law of Return would expedite the immigration process for the 24,000 or so Falash Mura currently waiting in compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar in anticipation of moving to Israel. The law of return guarantees any Jew “who is not a member of another religion” the right to become a citizen of Israel. The petition, which was filed Monday, notes that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, among others, has issued statements characterizing the Falash Mura as unequivocally Jewish. “The question is how the government and other institutions could ignore that Chief Rabbi Amar says they are Jewish, and decide that they can’t come under the Law of Return,” said lawyer Itzik Dessie, co-counsel on the petition and the executive director of the Tebeka Center for Legal Aid and Advocacy for Ethiopian Youth in Israel.

“The Falash Mura didn’t want to convert, they were forced,” he said. “If they didn’t [convert], they would have been killed. Now they are performing the mitzvot and should be allowed to come to IsraeL” According to Halacha, “a Jew who was converted by force is allowed to come back to the community,” he added. Dessie said the case will be the first to address the issue of forced conversion and mass conversion.

He said two previous rulings have established the precedent that converts’ religious status is set not by how they define their faith, but by how the surrounding community does. According to Dessie, the Falash Mura have never been accepted as Christians or Muslims, but were always seen as a separate group. “It doesn’t matter how the Christians see the Falash Mura,” he said. “It matters how Israeli rabbis see them. And the chief rabbi says they are Jews. They are part of us.” Two weeks ago, a hearing was held on a petition submitted last spring that also seeks to speed up the immigration of the Falash Mura.

That petition asks the court to require the government to fulfill an interministerial decision made last year to quickly bring the Falash Mura to Israel. The government changed soon afterwards, and the new interior minister, Avraham Poraz of Shinui, said he was unwilling to implement the decision, citing budgetary constraints. The next hearing on that petition has been set for June, giving the government three months to sort through the list of those waiting to come to Israel to determine who is eligible, as it pledged to do.

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