Imagine if during the emigration of Soviet Jewry, in the 1980s and ‘90s, it became known that Israel chose to slow the pace, for no convincing reason, of those coming out of a land of persecution and hardship seeking new lives in the Jewish state.
There would have been an outcry throughout the diaspora, accompanied by highly charged demands for speeding up the process, or at the very least, calls for an explanation for the change in plans.
Yet the recent decision by Jerusalem to delay for an additional year the deadline for the last remaining 4,500 or so Falash Mura approved for aliyah, who are seeking to reunite with more than 49,000 relatives and friends and settle in Israel, has attracted relatively little attention.
Despite an agreement reached in November 2010 between the Israeli government and a number of advocacy groups on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry to bring this last group out at a rate of 200 a month — so that everyone on a list determined to be Jewish would be out by March 2014 — the government has reduced the monthly number to 110, extending the completion date to March 2015.
“Making these people, many of them children, wait as long as three years to leave Gondar, under terrible conditions, is an appalling injustice without precedent in Israeli history,” says longtime advocate Joseph Feit of the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jewry, “not to mention the additional cost to Israel and the American Jewish community in supporting them.”
He charges that a government committee “seized defeat from the jaws of victory” by making the determination based on a possible shortage of beds in Israeli absorption centers. But the Jewish Agency for Israel and others say there is no shortage, that in fact there are more than 1,000 empty beds at the centers now and hundreds more expected to be empty in 2012.
Why the delay, then, and where is the call from an American Jewish community that has taken legitimate pride for its efforts to rescue the remaining Jews in Ethiopia?
The emigration of Ethiopian Jews has been filled with both pride and controversy. It has included dramatic moments of euphoria among Jews in Israel and around the world, most notably in May 1991, when in a 36-hour mission known as Operation Solomon, Israel flew more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to safety and a new home in the Jewish state. There was a sense that Israel was fulfilling its Zionist mission as a haven for Jews anywhere in the world, regardless of race or color. But since then, the continuing effort to bring the rest of the community out of lives of poverty, deprivation and periods of persecution has seen numerous delays, and disputes over the authenticity of their Jewishness. That applies particularly to the Falash Mura, who are Ethiopians with Jewish roots but who lived as Christians for many years to avoid persecution.
This last group of several thousand men, women and children has been approved by the Israeli government for aliyah eligibility and is regarded as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. We urge our readers to make their voices heard in speeding up, rather than stalling, the final chapter in the redemption of the last members of this ancient community in Ethiopia so that they can begin new lives in the Jewish homeland.