The American Jewish establishment is pressuring Israel to finally resolve the intractable, and controversial, Falash Mura issue by dramatically accelerating the pace to bring out the thousands of remaining Ethiopians and settling them in Israel.
The plan, which could cost well over $2 billion in aliyah and long-term absorption, would hold the Israeli government to its word that the Falash Mura — a community of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, often under social pressure — are indeed Jewish and should be brought to live in Israel as quickly as possible.
Discussion on a proposal to bring the entire Falash Mura community, estimated at between 15,000 and 24,000, to Israel in the next 24 to 30 months were held at a closed-door meeting Oct. 23 in Jerusalem convened by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz. Operations in Ethiopia run by Jewish humanitarian groups there would then be shut down, closing the chapter on large-scale aliyah from that country.
Participants said the meeting was convened at the request of Steve Hoffman, president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American federations. At the meeting were advocates for Ethiopian Jews, representatives of Jewish humanitarian groups and Israeli government officials, many of whom have differed on the size, authenticity and motivation of the Falash Mura — those left behind when Operation Solomon brought 14,000 Beta Yisrael, or long-practicing Ethiopian Jews, to Israel in a two-day airlift in 1991.
Why now? Some skeptics point to the upcoming annual General Assembly of UJC, meeting in Israel next week, as the impetus for action. But citing moral, humanitarian and health reasons for the new push, long called for by advocacy groups, an American Jewish establishment leader said, “It’s simply time to do the right thing. No more excuses.”
The leader referred to the fact that in a landmark decision in February, Israel’s cabinet voted to immediately verify the Jewish ancestry of some 19,000 Falash Mura so they could be brought to Israel. The chief rabbis have affirmed the Jewishness of the Falash Mura.
These two decisions were critical in prompting the Jewish establishment, chiefly through UJC, to revisit the issue with renewed determination.
Over the last five years, Israel has absorbed about 2,500 Falash Mura annually. At that rate it could take seven to 10 years to bring out the entire community.
The idea now on the table is to put an end to the foot dragging and contentiousness related to this problem, which American Jewry and Israel have been blamed for festering. But the Israeli government is widely seen as compounding the problem by delaying tough decisions along the way.
At the heart of the debate is the exact number of Falash Mura left in Ethiopia — a country where records of births and deaths are not kept — and the cost to Israel of absorbing the immigrants.
Also key, though rarely discussed, is the notion that the Falash Mura, though affirmed as Jews by all denominations and Israel’s chief rabbinate, are less than authentic. Some skeptics note that there has been little advocacy on their behalf from the Beta Yisrael community now living in Israel. Many say there is tension and distrust between the two communities.
Although participants at the Oct. 23 meeting agreed not to discuss the proceedings, one of those present who took notes described how discussions focused on determining the numbers of Falash Mura deemed eligible for aliyah, and the cost of bringing them to Israel and resettling them.
Poraz has worried aloud about the high cost at a time when Israel is facing severe budgetary cutbacks. One source said that if the Ethiopians started coming out quickly to Israel, there would be no place to house them.
Federation leaders said they were prepared to discuss with Israeli officials campaigns to raise funds for the absorption, according to the participant.
Poraz, who is accused of failing to act despite the February vote by the cabinet, has given no timetable on making a decision about the fate of Falash Mura. He and other Israeli officials have worried that bringing the Falash Mura to Israel will open the floodgates to an unknown number of people with dubious claims to Jewish ancestry seeking to leave the poverty of Ethiopia.
Poraz is not the only skeptic. Other critics fear a repeat of the “last chapter” of rescue in 1998, when Israel brought 4,000 Falash Mura from Ethiopia, believing them to be the last of the community. But soon after the humanitarian compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa — operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry — were emptied, thousands of people left their villages in the mountains and filled the compounds. They claimed to be relatives of the Falash Mura who had left and demanded that they be reunited in Israel with their loved ones.
Some Israeli and American Jewish officials believe the pipeline between the villages and compounds will never cease as long as there is hope of being able to leave Ethiopia.
According to the new plan, though, a finite number of people will be identified as eligible for aliyah, the process of getting them to Israel will be quickened, and the Jewish advocacy and humanitarian groups operating in Ethiopia will turn over their operations to an Israel-appointed group. Any Ethiopians seeking to make aliyah after that will fill out applications and be processed in a normal fashion.
This plan has great appeal to the Israeli government, Jewish Agency and the JDC, all of whom have been criticized strongly by groups like NACOEJ for not doing enough for the Falash Mura. It would end the constant censure, establishment officials say, and the whisperings that racism is a factor in Israel’s slow pace of aliyah — a charge Israeli officials deny.
“We would be happy to close down if the Falash Mura issue were resolved,” said Amir Shaviv, the JDC’s assistant executive vice president. “We’re there to maintain medical services. If these people were to go to Israel, we wouldn’t need to be there anymore.”
Privately, establishment officials accuse NACOEJ, which provides food and Jewish education at the compounds, of exaggerating the problems of starvation and health crises for fund-raising purposes.
NACOEJ advocates say they are willing to close shop if the speeded-up aliyah succeeds.
‘A Sea Change’
In Israel, advocates for the Ethiopians are pursuing legal action to force Poraz to accelerate the emigration process. But the prospect raised at the recent meeting of an agreement between Poraz, Jewish humanitarian groups working in Ethiopia and U.S. federation leaders could render such a move superfluous.
A small group of U.S. federation leaders, including UJA-Federation vice president and CEO John Ruskay, is planning to visit Ethiopia next week on a fact-finding mission.
Observers said the heightened interest by American Jewish federation leaders on the Falash Mura is helping propel action by the Israeli government, specifically by Poraz.
“Now he’s not facing a fringe group like NACOEJ but the weight of the American Jewish community,” said one participant in the Oct. 23 meeting. “That’s a sea change. That was not the case before this meeting.”
Earlier this year, several U.S. congressmen admonished Poraz on the issue, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) and Charles Rangel (D-Harlem).
February’s cabinet decision followed rulings by leading Israeli rabbis that the Falash Mura indeed are Jewish. It called for bringing the Falash Mura to Israel not under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews, their children and grandchildren, but under the seldom-used Law of Entry, which has been used to grant citizenship to foreigners for humanitarian reasons and family reunification.
That move enabled Israel to impose a requirement on the would-be immigrants to prove maternal linkage to Jewish ancestry; hence the need to verify their claims of Jewishness.
The Finance Ministry estimates that it costs $100,000 to absorb each Ethiopian immigrant, meaning that it would cost more than $2 billion to absorb all the Falash Mura currently at the compounds in Ethiopia.
Shlomo Molla, a Jewish Agency consultant on Ethiopian immigration, says the estimated costs are highly inflated.
In any case, advocates say, the cost would be borne over many years, U.S. Jewish groups would offer assistance and Israel has enough money even with its current recession to absorb the immigrants.
Irwin Cotler, a member of Canada’s Parliament and a longtime legal adviser to Ethiopian Jews who was at the Oct. 23 meeting, said the question at stake is, “Will it happen through an agreement now to bring them with all deliberate speed, or only after another series of court cases, and more people die, and more kids are undernourished? That is the moral choice before us.”