Putting a Price Tag on Ethiopia’s Jews

It was a year ago this week that the Israeli government made a solemn promise that it has thus far failed to keep. On February 16, 2003, the cabinet formally approved a decision stating that the remaining 20,OOO-odd Falash Mura still in Ethiopia would be brought home to Israel, where they would be reunited with the Jewish people after centuries of exile and dispersion. The Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity, many of them against their will, over the past few generations, and who now wish to return to the faith and land of their ancestors. By all accounts, the Falash Mura are sincere in their determination to live as Jews, and figures ranging from Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to the President of the Rabbinical Council of America to the heads of American Jewish federations have all called upon the government to bring them home. Nevertheless, despite the promise of rapid action that last year’s cabinet decision seemed to portend, virtually nothing has been done in the past 12 months to speed up the process.

The Falash Mura continue to arrive in Israel at the rate of less than 300 per month, which is exactly the same pace that was in effect prior to the cabinet’s decision. At this rate, it will take another 7 or 8 years (!!) for the remaining members of the community to be reunited with their loved ones in Israel. A special committee on the Falash Mura set up last year by the government, and headed by Interior Minister A vraham Poraz, is said to have convened just once to discuss the issue. Indeed, the situation has gotten so bad, and the government’s failure to implement its own decision so egregious, that Falash Mura activists recently turned to the Supreme Court to force the government’s hand. And so, at a time when aliyah is down, and Israel is looking for new pools of potential immigrants, thousands of would-be Israelis continue to linger in Ethiopia, enduring awful conditions, while Israel’s bureaucrats shuffle the paperwork, affix the stamps and plod along at a snail’s pace.

How, you might ask, is such a thing possible? After all, even the Ethiopian government does not object to the Falash Mura making aliyah. Last month, during Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom’s visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, said that, “The Ethiopian Government has no objection for the Ethiopian Jews to travel to Israel” (BBC, January 9,2004). So, if the Israeli government is in favor of the Falash Mura making aliya, and the Ethiopian government does not object to it, and the Chief Rabbinate supports it, then what exactly is holding things up? The answer, sadly enough, is this: Interior Minister Avraham Poraz and Absorption Minister Tsipi Livni have placed a price tag on Ethiopia’s Jews.

In recent weeks, the two ministers have come out against increasing the annual quota of Falash Mura immigrants, warning that it costs approximately $100,000 to absorb each arrival from Ethiopia. When Foreign Minister Shalom sought to boost the number of immigrants from 300 to 1000 per month, Poraz and Livni joined forces to torpedo the initiative, citing the high cost involved. But since when has it become official government policy to calculate the value of a Jewish life? Have we strayed so far from our heritage that we would turn away new immigrants because it costs “too much” money to absorb them? That isn’t Zionism – it’s post-Zionism, and it is an approach that should be roundly rejected and condemned.

Adding to the absurdity of the situation is the fact that at the very same time that the government says it has no money to absorb Ethiopians, it manages to find the wherewithal to reduce the tax on our DVD players. Take out your calculators for a moment and consider this: by reducing VAT and cutting customs duties and sales taxes on various electronic items, the government is forgoing an estimated NIS 2.1 billion in revenue per year. If, as the government asserts, it costs approximately $100,000, or some NIS 450,000, to absorb every additional member of the Falash Mura, then instead of making our DVD players a little less expensive, wouldn’t it have made more sense to use those funds to increase aliyah?

For the same NIS 2.1 billion, some 4,500 more Falash Mura could conceivably be brought to Israel per year, bringing the annual number of arrivals up from the current 3,600 to over 8,000. As a result, the entire Falash Mura population could be brought here in a little more than two years, rather than forcing them to wait until 2012. Now, don’t get me wrong – I am all in favor of reducing the tax burden and revamping Israel’s confiscatory tariff system. Any step in this direction is to be welcomed, if only because it is so long overdue. But, since money is fungible, what the government is essentially saying in this case is that it prefers cheaper DVDs over absorbing additional Ethiopian immigrants.

Frankly, if the choice is between bringing more Jews or shelling out a few extra shekels for a Blockbuster flick, then my vote is for aliyah, plain and simple. It is time for the government to realize this, and to speed up the Falash Mura’s immigration as quickly as possible. Because when it comes to saving Jewish lives, playing with price tags is simply the wrong way to go.

The writer served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office under former premier Binyamin Netanyahu. He is currently the Director of Amishav, which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

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