Israel did the right thing this week in deciding to double the pace of immigration from Ethiopia, where an estimated 20,000 members of the so-called Falash Mura community have been waiting for years to join their relatives in the Jewish state. Jerusalem’s foot-dragging on the issue has been a blot on Israel’s humanitarian and Zionist mission.
The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews who were converted to Christianity three generations ago but retained their identity as a distinct community. Since the dramatic airlift that brought most of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community to Israel in 1991, the Falash Mura have been clamoring to join their kin. Most claim that their families were forced to adopt Christianity a century ago and that they now wish to return to their ancentral faith. Israeli immigration authorities have viewed them with suspicion, fearing they were seeking to exploit Israel’s generosity merely to improve their economic lot.
To many of us, Jerusalem’s reserve has smacked uncomfortably of racism. Israel was founded as a haven for any Jews facing persecution. Its Law of Return promises an open door to all Jews and their families, down to and including grandchildren. At least one-fourth of the million-odd refugees taken in from the former Soviet Union in the last two decades are not Jewish by rabbinic standards. Many are practicing Christians. They were welcomed nonetheless as part of the Jewish family, as they should be. Our Ethiopian cousins deserve no less a welcome.
This week’s Israeli Cabinet decision effectively puts some teeth into a decision taken two years ago, under pressure from American Jewish activists, to accept the Falash Mura’s claim in principle and begin processing their applications on a case-by-case basis. The processing, creeping along at 300 a month, will double by the fall, after a series of procedural changes. Israel’s Treasury will now ensure funding for the newcomers’ absorption. In addition, the Jewish Agency, the international charity overseeing Israeli immigration, reportedly will take over control of the Ethiopian transit camps where the applicants now live, smoothing the process.
The new policy is a welcome one. Given the record, however, the Ethiopian community’s advocates would do well to stay vigilant and make sure the authorities do what they say they will.