Ethiopian Immigrants to Israel Left Waiting in Limbo

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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More than a year after promising to bring 600 Ethiopians to Israel each month, the Israeli government has taken few concrete steps toward fulfilling the pledge, leaving thousands of immigrants in unhappy limbo and in squalid conditions.

At issue is the fate of the Falash Mura, Ethiopians who are said to have Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity but are now converting back to Judaism and fighting to immigrate to Israel.

The Israeli Cabinet decided back in February 2003 to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia, and currently 300 are coming to Israel each month. But more than a year ago, in January 2005, the Israeli government agreed to bring 600 a month at that rate so that the migration would end by 2008.

So far, none of the plan’s key phases have been put in motion. And Israeli officials recently told a delegation of American Jewish leaders that no progress should be expected until after the Israeli elections are held March 28. The delegation, made up of about 100 leaders of local Jewish charitable federations, journeyed to Ethiopia and Israel earlier this month to investigate the situation.

The delays in increasing the flow from Ethiopia are only the latest instances of stalling in the case of the Falash Mura — one of the only times in Israeli history when the government has hesitated to bring in migrants that it has deemed eligible for Israeli citizenship.

Many Israeli officials and American Jewish communal leaders have said that for any progress to be made, a comprehensive final list must be drawn up to determine which Ethiopians are eligible for immigration. Such a list would enable Israeli officials to get a real sense of the total cost and scope of bringing those deemed eligible, and provide a mechanism for bringing the Ethiopian immigration to an end.

Since last year, the Israeli government has said it was attempting to compile a final list, but Israeli officials in Ethiopia say that such a list is currently unavailable.

“If you ask me today how many people are waiting [to leave for Israel], I can’t tell you how many,” acknowledged an Israeli Interior Ministry official working in Ethiopia.

Because immigration appears to be an open process, Ethiopians have continued to uproot their lives and are pouring into the urban aid compounds set up by Jewish groups — hoping to qualify for migration from poverty-ridden Ethiopia.

“It’s a humanitarian issue to get them out of here,” says Robert Goldberg, chairman of United Jewish Communities. The organization is the national roof body of local American Jewish federations. “In some way we’ve encouraged these people to come. It’s not fair to let them wait six to eight years.”

“Unless there’s a good plan to end it,” Goldberg warned, “there will be more.”

In the city of Addis Ababa, a shantytown of decrepit tin shacks has sprung up around the Jewish aid compound. Among the fetid smells and homes fashioned from scrap metal live several thousand Falash Mura, with barefoot children stumbling among the stray dogs and mule-drawn carts.

There are Ethiopians who have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar, another city with Jewish compounds, for as long as eight years. Most are impoverished by the loss of their livelihoods, caused by their uprooting. They are also susceptible to the HIV-infected prostitutes that ply their trade on the city’s streets and dependent on assistance like the feeding programs run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Every month, some 300 of the luckier Ethiopians are selected to be taken to Israel. There does not appear to be any formal criteria on which the 300 are chosen. Once there, they are granted Israeli citizenship and taught Hebrew and Judaism, while residing in absorption centers. In due course, they are provided with about 90% of the funds they need to buy a home.

American Jewish federations are aiming to help the Israeli government with these costs. The goal of the recent federation mission was to help fund raising for Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign for overseas needs of which $100 million will go for Ethiopian immigration. So far, more than $45 million has been raised for the operation, according to UJC officials.

Even if the $100 million is raised quickly, the lion’s share of the burden for absorbing the Ethiopians will rest with Israel. On average, each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state about $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. Even after Prime Minister Sharon put his political weight behind the program last year, it was not enough to convince other Israeli ministries to provide the necessary funding and manpower. Now, with Sharon out of the picture, the prospects are further dimmed.

“Sharon was the engine behind this. He pushed this through. He took the decisions. He set the timetable,” said Ori Konforti, senior official in Ethiopia for the Jewish Agency for Israel. The agency is the quasi-governmental entity responsible for immigration to Israel. “Now there is no engine for this.”

As to the cause of the delay, the Interior and Finance ministries have been pointing fingers at each other. To some degree, the holdup seems attributable to lingering doubts about the Jewishness of the Falash Mura among the Israeli officials charged with implementing the process. The chief rabbinate of Israel decided in 2003 that the Falash Mura should be able to immigrate. But the rabbinate’s decision has not convinced everyone.

The migration of Ethiopians to Israel began in the 1980s, when the Jewish state decided to welcome a group known as the Beta Israel — Ethiopian Jews who had maintained their Jewish faith. The bulk of the Beta Israel came in two emergency missions in which thousands of Ethiopians were airlifted to Israel.

In that earlier period of migration, the Israeli government turned away those Ethiopians who had not maintained their Judaism. This group became known as the Falash Mura. Israel’s policy on the Falash Mura changed in the 1990s, largely due to advocacy by American Jews and to vocal protests by relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel.

In the countryside of Gojam province, the Falash Mura can be found in clusters of mud-and-straw huts built amid eucalyptus trees. Though they pray in a Christian church and hang pictures of the Virgin Mary in their home, these people call themselves Beta Israel. Many of them have relatives who have gone to Gondar and Addis Ababa, some of whom have made it to Israel.

Those who have left their villages and gone to live in the cities, closer to where Israel’s representatives in Ethiopia work and live, say they have ceased their Christian practices. Some of them don yarmulkes while in the Jewish aid compounds. Many take lessons in Judaism, and all hope that embracing the Jewish faith will help get them to the Jewish state.

With the lack of any guidelines for where Ethiopians can and cannot go, the estimated number of prospective migrants continues to change. An Israeli census, in 1999, counted 26,700 Ethiopians with legitimate claims to immigrate to Israel. Since then, roughly 18,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel, but the Interior Ministry still says there are 19,000 left. Jewish Agency officials in Ethiopia say they are dealing with 15,000 people. American Jewish officials with aid programs in Ethiopia say that the number may far exceed the 20,000-person cap the Israeli government decided on a year ago.

Some officials predict that an arbitrary end point will have to be set if Ethiopian immigration is ever to end.

“When we started to campaign, we were told that we were going to get a list,” lamented Joel Tauber, national chairman of the federations’ Operation Promise campaign. “A continual aliya would challenge the resources of the [UJC] system and take money away from other lifesaving programs we do.”






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