JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 (JTA) — Just when it seemed Israel was on the verge of bringing mass Ethiopian aliyah to a close, a coalition of Ethiopian Israeli advocacy groups is demanding that Jewish aid services in Ethiopia be extended to an additional 8,000 people.|
The demand was made in a Jan. 3 letter by an umbrella group of Ethiopian Israeli organizations to the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, the main sponsor of Jewish aid operations in Ethiopia and one of the primary advocates for Ethiopian aliyah. The development suggests that there are at least twice as many Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel as what the Israeli government believes.
“Accurate or not, it’s an indication that Ethiopians in Israel are unlikely to end their efforts to bring additional Ethiopians to the Jewish state once the current group, which the Israeli Interior Ministry estimates at some 7,800 souls, is brought to Israel.
“There are approximately eight thousand additional Ethiopian Jews who do not receive any medical care” or humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, the letter to the UJC said. “They are an integral part of our community and many of them have first-degree relatives in Israel or in the compound in Gondar,” the Ethiopian city where the majority of aliyah petitioners live.
A UJC spokesman said the organization had no immediate response to the Jan. 3 request for aid. The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provide aid in Ethiopia.
This development is significant, some say, because it actualizes the fear that the number of potential Ethiopian olim is growing rather than declining, despite the fact that 300 Ethiopians are being brought to Israel each month.
Some officials involved in the aliyah process long have warned that there would be no end to the flood of Ethiopians seeking to escape Africa’s desperate poverty through immigration to Israel. This fear has driven Israel’s ambivalent policy toward Ethiopian olim, with successive governments dragging their feet on implementing a February 2003 Cabinet decision to expedite Ethiopian aliyah.
American Jewish federation leaders — the prime sponsors of Ethiopian aliyah — have sought to pressure the Israeli government to achieve its goal of ending mass Ethiopian aliyah by speeding the immigration of those already at the Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia and finalizing a government list of those eligible to immigrate.
Neither has happened yet.
Some officials privately say they fear that untold thousands more Ethiopians will agitate for aliyah, and will have as their allies the Ethiopian Israelis who drafted last week’s letter.
“Now they’re starting to push for the unrecognized” petitioners, one Jewish official told JTA this week. “They’re pushing an issue we thought was dead and buried.”
But Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, cautioned that the request for aid does not necessarily signify the opening of the floodgates.
“There’s a dispute between the Interior Ministry and the Falash Mura advocates as to just how many people would be on the list,” Hoffman said. “The discrepancy could be as many as the 8,000 these people are now talking about.”
Avraham Neguise, director of the South Wing to Zion advocacy group and the letter’s primary signatory, echoed Hoffman’s perspective.
“It’s not a new initiative,” Neguise told JTA. “The UJC and the Interior Ministry are suddenly saying there are 7,800, but they ignored the villages. They focused only on those on the lists in Addis Ababa and Gondar. We’re asking that these people who came from their villages over the last two years also receive help.”
Two years ago, a special investigation by this reporter found signs of thousands more Ethiopians living in the countryside with possible claims of Jewish links who were unaccounted for by the Israeli government.
Itzhak Dessie, also a signatory to the Jan. 3 letter and director of an Ethiopian Israeli advocacy group called Tebeka, said it’s not clear whether these recent arrivals are among the unaccounted for or whether they are part of the 26,000 counted as candidates for aliyah in a 1999 census by an Israeli named David Efrati. Neguise says the 8,000 are part of Efrati’s 26,000.
“We are not saying that these people are eligible to immigrate to Israel,” Dessie said. “That responsibility belongs to the parties that are checking eligibility. I am just saying that if they have come to Gondar, they should receive assistance.”
Israel’s ambivalence toward Ethiopian aliyah stems both from the expense — according to Israeli government estimates, the average Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, far more than immigrants from anywhere else — and from the uncertainty surrounding the Jewish identity of the Ethiopians currently seeking to make aliyah, known as Falash Mura. Some also accuse Israel of racism.
The Jewish state decided in the early 1980s to welcome Ethiopians who had kept their Jewish faith and identities over centuries, and facilitated their aliyah in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991. But Israel turned away those who had abandoned Judaism generations ago when their ancestors converted to Christianity to escape economic and social pressures.
Israel’s policy vis-a-vis these Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, changed in the 1990s, largely due to advocacy by American Jews and vocal protests by relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel. Thousands more Ethiopians began to pour into Israel.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate certified the Falash Mura as Jews, but the difficulty in ascertaining who actually fit this qualification made bringing the Falash Mura to Israel under the Law of Return — meant for Jews — virtually impossible. Instead, the Ethiopians arrive under the Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate.
Rather than prove that they are Jews, then, these Ethiopians must prove that they have immediate relatives in Israel. This has opened up the way for widespread fraud, many say.
“You’re naive; the immigration will never end,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin recently cautioned, according to a report this week in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot.
Mesfin said word has spread quickly in Ethiopia that Israel is allowing people to immigrate, and as a consequence untold thousands of Ethiopians with no connection to Judaism or Israel are perpetrating deceit in a bid to leave Africa and get to the Jewish state.
“They simply want to get out of here for economic reasons,” Mesfin said.
Since then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet decided in 2003 to expedite the aliyah of an estimated 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia, numerous officials involved in the process have warned that Israel would not be able to bring the aliyah to a close.
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Interior Ministry, said there are approximately 7,800 Falash Mura left in Ethiopia, about 1,000 of whom have been approved for aliyah.
The news of the additional 8,000 now being claimed by the Ethiopian Israeli advocates echoes an episode that took place eight years ago.
In 1998, immigration to Israel had left the Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia virtually empty, and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Ben Gurion Airport to greet what was presented as the last planeload of Falash Mura immigrants. A month later, however, 8,000 more people turned up at the aid compounds demanding to be taken to Israel. The number of petitioners soon swelled to 14,000.
“This could be 1998 all over again,” warned one senior American Jewish organizational official on a trip to Ethiopia several months ago. “We’ll take these 20,000, and then there’ll be more.”