Ethiopians Protest Immigration Delays

By Nacha Cattan, With Reporting From Ha’aretz.

Published January 09, 2004, issue of January 09, 2004.
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Israel’s absorption minister is under fire for reportedly speaking out in opposition to a Cabinet decision to immediately bring up to 20,000 Ethiopians of Jewish descent to Israel.

Several Israeli media outlets have reported that the minister of immigrant absorption, Tzipi Livni, disparaged the idea of bringing the Falash Mura, descendents of Jews who converted to Christianity under duress but have recently adopted an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. She reportedly dismissed them during a ministerial meeting as “Christians from Africa,” despite their apparent return to the Jewish fold.

Following several days of controversy, however, a spokesman for the absorption ministry denied that Livni had made the controversial remarks at the closed meeting.

The minister was jeered at a Jerusalem protest this week involving 2,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel. “Tzipi Livni, don’t discriminate against us,” the demonstrators shouted, according to the event’s organizer, Avraham Neguise. Head of the pro-Falash Mura activist group South Wing to Zion, Neguise said he is organizing a strike at 27 absorption centers and “very radical actions” if the immigration process does not move forward.

But what may further delay an immigration process, which critics say has dragged on slowly for years, is a report drafted by officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel and its American funder, the United Jewish Communities. The report recommends that a list of all eligible Falash Mura be finalized before the Cabinet decision to bring them is implemented, according to sources.

Meanwhile, spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jews in Israel are demanding that they be given a chance to examine this list in order to weed out any false claims to Jewish ancestry. At the same time, the chief rabbi of the Ethiopian community is denying news reports that Ethiopian spiritual leaders, known as kessim, claimed that most of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia have no ancestral claim to Judaism. Another spiritual leader of the Ethiopian community disputes a separate news report that the kessim have called for a halt to Ethiopian immigration until the leaders compose a proper list of eligible Falash Mura.

The recent wave of critical reports of the Falash Mura are the latest salvo in a raging political debate over how, or even whether, to implement the Cabinet decision, which has suffered numerous setbacks since it was approved in February. The debate has grown more shrill of late as Israel struggles under an economy in crisis that some say cannot sustain a mass migration, while Ethiopia teeters on the edge of a malaria epidemic.

“The bottom line is the decision still holds, but the funds are not available,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews who works closely on Ethiopian issues as a board member of the Jewish Agency.

Eckstein said that government officials involved in the process, including Livni and Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, have now turned to Prime Minister Sharon to decide if and how the operation would be funded.

Meanwhile, the debate is playing out in the politically charged Israeli media, with some reports pointing to fissures within the Ethiopian community.

An Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, reported this week that in a meeting with Livni, spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jews in Israel said that most of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia have no ties to Judaism. But chief Ethiopian rabbi Yosef Hadane and a fellow spiritual leader, Kess Avihu Azariya, both of whom were at the meeting, later told the Forward that the kessim said nothing of the sort. Hadane said that he thinks most of the Falash Mura are eligible for immigration under the Cabinet decision. But, he said, the kessim want to check the list themselves since some Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel in the past did not have Jewish ancestry. Azariya also denied a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that the kessim are calling for a halt to immigration until they cull a proper list of the Falash Mura.

“No one said to stop the aliyah,” Azariya said. “But they said check the list for who belongs and who does not belong. We don’t understand why they change the words in the newspapers.”

An Israeli Ethiopian journalist, who co-wrote the Yediot story in question, told the Forward that many Ethiopians and spiritual leaders in his community are not in favor of bringing the Falash Mura. “I’m Ethiopian,” said the journalist, Danny Adino Abebe. “I kept my religion a long time. How could a lot of people now say ‘I’m Jewish also.’ If American people want to help minorities, it’s very nice. But I think it’s really bad for us.”

Running through Israeli press reports is what appears to be a growing sense of Israeli alienation from American Jewish groups, which are bluntly “accused” in several articles of pushing and funding the Falash Mura cause.

Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot and one of Israel’s most respected political commentators, reported last week that Livni is in favor of reexamining the Cabinet decision to bring the Falash Mura. Barnea wrote that at a recent ministerial meeting on the issue, Livni complained that Israel is the only government in the world that encourages emigration of Christians from Africa.

A spokesman for Livni’s ministry, Arik Pueer, denied Barnea’s report. But, he added, Livni is in fact concerned that her ministry does not have the budget to absorb tens of thousands of Falash Mura.

“She said ‘If we plan to bring them, we should — as the government decision states — create the right budget to absorb them,’” Pueer said. “We cannot bring people and throw them on the street.” Pueer said Livni is debating not whether, but how, to implement the Cabinet decision.

Israeli budget supervisor Uri Yogev said at a meeting last week with absorption and interior ministry officials that he estimated the cost of bringing the Falash Mura to Israel at $2 billion, or some $100,000 per person. Livni this week said the expense of absorbing a Falash Mura immigrant is 10 times more than immigrants from other countries, but a report by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz stated that the true cost is much less.

The reports of Livni’s alleged remarks, coupled with the continuing immigration delays, are leaving some leaders of Jewish charitable federations in America frustrated.

“We are trying to verify the comments,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York. “We had thought that once the government of Israel made its decision on February 16, which followed a decision of the Sephardic chief rabbinate, the issue of their Jewish status had been resolved; and we had thought that the government of Israel had made the decision to complete the rescue of the Falash Mura. We continue to hope that will be the view of the Prime Minister and the entire government.”

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