Who pays for Falash Mura aliyah?

NEW YORK, Feb. 26 (JTA) — Israel’s decision to allow the remaining Ethiopians who claim Jewish ancestry to immigrate to Israel ends an emotional era of debate and politicking in the Jewish community.

It also begins a new one.

The battle has now moved to the funding for the immigration and absorption of some 18,000 Falash Mura, which Israel’s minister of absorption, Yuli Edelstein, said will cost some $400 million. At issue is how quickly the immigration will occur, whether strategic services will be provided in Ethiopia or in Israel and to what extent North American Jewry will shoulder the cost.

An inter-ministerial committee, headed by outgoing Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party, has been formed to determine those answers — but it is already clear that Israel will be looking to North American Jewry to foot a large part of the bill.

The decision comes as the Jewish federation system in North America struggles to fund a host of priorities, during an economic downturn in North America, that range from aiding impoverished Argentine Jews to emergency services in Israel to funding local needs.

Advocates for the Falash Mura call Israel’s decision a long-awaited victory, but others are concerned about how to fund the project.

The Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity as much as a century ago under societal pressure. Many of them have begun to practice an Orthodox brand of Judaism while waiting for permission to move to Israel.

The protracted dispute over their eligibility for aliyah began in 1990, when many Falash Mura accompanied Ethiopian Jews to Addis Ababa in hopes of immigrating to Israel.

While the Ethiopian Jews were accepted, the Falash Mura were turned away because they weren’t eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.

Skeptics argued that the Falash Mura essentially were economic refugees and should be rejected. Allowing the Falash Mura to immigrate, they said, would encourage abuse by other Ethiopians not entitled to Israeli citizenship.

Supporters said world Jewry’s inaction was a way to skirt the expense of absorbing Third World immigrants. Some accused their opponents of racism, claiming that non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union were treated more leniently.

In the meantime, many Falash Mura — who left their homes in the countryside and moved to refugee camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar hoping to emigrate quickly — fell prey to disease and starvation.

Their straits caused some advocates to argue that even if the Falash Mura wouldn’t otherwise be eligible to move to Israel, they should be allowed to emigrate to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

Due to pressure from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, the Israeli Cabinet voted Feb. 16 to make eligible for immigration all who can show some maternal Jewish link.

Up to this point, about 18,500 Falash Mura have made aliyah during the past decade, with approval on a case-by-case basis.

One source claimed that the political grandstanding around Israel’s recent decision to allow Falash Mura immigration masks the fact that it merely confirms longstanding policy.

Others disagreed.

The policy “represents a major step forward,” said Barbara Ribakove, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

“It is a statement of positive attitude toward the aliyah, coming as it does from the Cabinet,” she said.

One source warned that if a member of the staunchly secular Shinui Party is appointed interior minister in the next government, as now seems almost certain, he might curtail Shas’ efforts because of the antagonism between the two parties. The head of the Interior Ministry leads the inter-ministerial committee on the Falash Mura.

But others dismissed that possibility.

“Shas has pursued the issue because in their view, which accords with the views of rabbinic authorities from all streams of Judaism, including Ethiopian spiritual leaders, the Falash Mura are Jews, and we have a religious obligation to help them,” said Joseph Feit, past president of the North American Conference, known as NACOEJ.

“I would expect the government decision remains the law in Israel despite the change in government, and any future interior minister is bound by that decision unless it is revoked.”

The government resolution requests increased humanitarian aid for Falash Mura in Ethiopia.

Such aid currently comes from the North American Conference — which feeds 10,000 meals a day to 7,000 children and pregnant and nursing women, and educates 4,500 children — and the Jewish federation system’s overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs health clinics providing nutritional supplements.

The resolution also calls for talks with NACOEJ, JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, another overseas partner of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations.

The Jewish Agency runs immigration and absorption programs for the Falash Mura in Israel.

Yishai hinted at the financial burden for North American Jewry in a Feb. 3 letter to NACOEJ.

Asking the group to discuss the upcoming aliyah with the JDC and UJC, Yishai wrote, “I recommend to all of you that this project should be viewed as urgent, justifying the expenditure of financial resources.”

The UJC will abide by Israeli policy, but the request is a tough one, activists say.

“We’ve got a big problem here,” said Karen Shapira, former chair of UJC’s Israel and Overseas Pillar. The federation system already is “really stretched” to meet the panoply of Jewish needs, she said.

UJC not only is running its annual campaign but, because of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, is continuing its Israel Emergency Campaign for a second year.

Ironically, the emergency campaign trumped another Ethiopian-related effort: Before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, the UJC had promised a 10-year, $600 million National Ethiopian Project to ease the integration of Ethiopians already in Israel. The project has been scaled back to just $10 million, according to Shapira.

“I can’t imagine we’ll just have another campaign,” Shapira said. Instead, she said, funds might be solicited from foundations or the U.S. government.

For its part, NACOEJ already complains that it lacks funds. But the group will solicit activists, federations and foundations “with redoubled energy,” Ribakove says.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which since the mid-1990s has urged Israel to assess the eligibility of the Falash Mura, also plans to aid the effort.

“We have the coalition, it just needs reinvigoration,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, an early center of support for Falash Mura immigration.

But federations face a major challenge in soliciting American Jewish donors.

The faltering U.S. economy and an anticipated war against Iraq are causing donors to take a wait-and-see attitude in general, said Robert Schrayer, vice chair of the UJC and chair of its Israel Emergency Campaign.

Federations’ annual campaigns currently are running “a little slower than normal,” he said. The total raised this year is 3.6 percent ahead of last year’s rate, but last year’s campaign was 6 percent ahead of the previous year at the same time.

“The economy here is going to be a difficult problem to cope with,” Schrayer said.

But, he added, “I think the American Jewish community responds to the needs in Israel and the needs locally — so as we have more needs, we do find people that are willing to step forward, even despite the economy, and make sizable commitments.”

Arieh Azoulay, chair of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption committee, said the Jewish people are “always ready to participate” in government decisions that affect Israeli demographics.

But Jewish Agency and JDC officials said they are awaiting clarification from Israel.

“Once there is a new Cabinet formed in Israel and a Minister of Interior is appointed, we shall reach out to ask for interpretation and more details of this decision,” said Steven Schwager, JDC’s executive vice president.

In the meantime, no mass immigration of Falash Mura is expected quickly.

Ethiopia opposes any kind of special airlift, citing its already-open borders. On Wednesday, an Ethiopian government official publicly stated its opposition to plans for any kind of mass aliyah, Reuters reported.

“It is beyond Ethiopia’s comprehension why anyone would wish to organize a mass movement of people from Ethiopia, when everyone is free to leave the country in a normal and legal way,” an official told the news agency.

For its part, Israel still must sort out each Falash Mura’s eligibility, and world Jewry must raise a vast amount of funds, yet to be determined.

Feit anticipates that it will take two years to bring all the Falash Mura to Israel. The cost of immigration and absorption will be spread over four years, he said, with significant additional costs in 2004, when the absorption centers in Israel will be full.

The JDC opposes further services in Ethiopia, calling instead for the quick transfer to Israel of Falash Mura now in Addis Ababa.

But Ribakove opposes that argument. Assuming that some Falash Mura will remain in Ethiopia for years to come, she hopes world Jewry will maximize the services delivered in Ethiopia to educate and nourish the Falash Mura more cheaply than is possible in Israel.

The community faces a choice, she said: “Those years could be put to good use,” or could be “just a time of suffering, with whatever services we can provide.”

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