Charities Protest Delay on Ethiopian Refugees

By Vita Bekker

Published June 30, 2006, issue of June 30, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — American Jewish philanthropic leaders are vowing to fight Israel’s recent decision to postpone a plan to increase the rate of Ethiopian immigration.

Citing budgetary difficulties, a government ministerial committee decided to postpone talks on doubling the number of Ethiopian immigrants to 600 a month until priorities are set for Israel’s 2007 budget. The delay came despite a commitment by former prime minister Ariel Sharon 18 months ago to double the immigration rate, and despite subsequent government assurances that the new plan — hailed at the time as a breakthrough — would be implemented in June 2005.

But so far Sharon’s promise has not been fulfilled, despite thousands of Ethiopians living in poor conditions while they wait to immigrate. They are part of what’s known as the Falash Mura, Jews who are now returning to Judaism after their ancestors converted to Christianity.

The delay threatens to create a rift between Israel and leaders of local Jewish charitable federations, many of whom have taken a strong interest in the plight of the Ethiopians and have been raising funds to help Israel bear the cost of the stepped-up immigration plan.

Encouraged by Sharon’s decision, United Jewish Communities — the national roof body of federations in North America — had started a $160 million fund-raising campaign called Operation Promise. About $100 million of the total is aimed at covering the costs of Ethiopian immigration. More than $60 million of Operation Promise has been raised already, UJC officials say.

“Even if it’s a financial issue now, Sharon’s government told us to move ahead. So we’ve gone to our communities and told them that it’s going to be increased to 600,” said Robert Goldberg, chairman of UJC, in an interview with the Forward. “These people in Ethiopia have a terrible life and want to come to Israel.”

Goldberg — along with other federation leaders, including John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York — says he is meeting with Israeli government ministers this week to press them on the issue. Goldberg, Ruskay and other American Jewish leaders are in Jerusalem to take part in this week’s meetings of the assembly and board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental body charged with promoting and facilitating immigration.

“I know many of us are meeting with different ministers involved,” Ruskay said in an interview with the Forward. “This has obviously dragged on far longer than most of us thought it would for a range of reasons. But let’s hope that if we keep at it, we’ll get this done.”

Some Jewish federation leaders say that the delay could sour relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

“For them to maintain the status quo is extremely disappointing,” said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. Hoffman formerly served as UJC chair. “The most significant negative is for the people in Ethiopia. But the secondary negative is a weakening of the government’s relationship with us.”

Race issues also may be a cause for the delay, according to Hoffman. Speaking in an earlier interview with The Jerusalem Post, he said: “It’s because they’re from Africa. That’s what I believe. I hate to say it. I’m embarrassed to say it. But I don’t have any other explanation.”

Sharon’s decision in 2005 had called for all eligible Falash Mura to be brought to Israel by the end of 2007. His promise came after the Israeli Cabinet voted in February 2003 to bring as many as 26,000 of the Falash Mura that remained in Ethiopia.

At last week’s ministerial committee meeting, Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson submitted a letter saying that there’s a need to wait for the increase until the conclusion of discussions on the 2007 budget. Those talks are due to begin in July or August, government officials say.

Several government ministers opposed the delay. In a letter to American Jewish communal leaders, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski said that at last week’s ministerial committee meeting, “strong backing” for raising the Ethiopian immigration rate was provided by both Ofir Pines-Paz, who is a member of Labor and minister of science, technology, culture and sports, and Shas leader Eli Yishai, minister of industry, trade and labor.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Boim also voiced his support for increasing Ethiopian immigration. At a meeting Tuesday with the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, Boim said he felt “uncomfortable” with the committee’s decision, according to his spokeswoman, Shiri Kristin. She said he explained that it costs Israel about $445 million per year to pay for the absorption (not for the immigration, as well) of 300 immigrants arriving in Israel per month. Increasing the monthly number of immigrants by 150 instead of by 300 — an interim solution that was suggested at the ministerial meeting but not adopted — would cost about $220 million more.

The reasons for the delay aren’t just budgetary, Israeli officials said.

Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On, during his own meeting with the Jewish Agency Board of Governors on Tuesday, said that more has to be done to help with the adjustment of Ethiopians who are already in Israel, according to a person who attended the meeting and declined to be identified because the session was closed to the media.

Israel’s Interior Ministry estimates there are a remaining 10,300 Ethiopians who potentially could be eligible for immigration. But Menachem Waldman, a rabbi who has been helping the Ethiopian immigrants return to Judaism, says there are more than 18,000 Ethiopians waiting to qualify for the right to come to Israel. Of those, he added, about 16,000 are eligible.

Most of the Falash Mura have left their villages and are living in squalid conditions around compounds — which contain Jewish schools, synagogues and mikvehs (ritual baths) — in Addis Ababa and Gondar. According to Waldman, they live in overcrowded homes, have no running water and little electricity, and lack medical attention. Once they immigrate to Israel, a process known in Hebrew as aliya, they reside in absorption centers and receive Israeli citizenship only when they complete the process of returning to Judaism, which includes learning Hebrew, Waldman said.

Ethiopian leaders and activists in Israel are angry at the government’s delay.

“Until now, there were logical explanations for the postponement — the disengagement from Gaza, the elections. But now the budget excuse is back,” says Shlomo Molla, an executive member of the World Zionist Organization who has served as director of the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian absorption services. “But Israel should remember that it’s fighting a demographic problem, and that our bread of existence is aliya.”

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