By his own admission, Knesset Member Shlomo Molla (Kadima) does not want to spend all his time tackling the wide-ranging challenges facing his own community. Rather, he says, he’d like to also be involved in other areas of law and policymaking. But in the last few months Molla, the only Ethiopian MK in the current parliament, has found himself increasingly drawn into the messy and controversial debate over the continued immigration of the Falash Mura, Ethiopians whose ancestors were converted from Judaism to Christianity more than a century ago.
“I try to divide my time between dealing with all sorts of subjects,” says Molla, as we sit together in the Knesset dining room. “Most of it is spent dealing with general social issues, security and diplomacy concerns but as the only Ethiopian MK I have no choice but to deal
with matters concerning the Ethiopian community too.” He adds: “Obviously, I can’t take it all on my back and I have been working to get other Knesset members to take an interest in these issues too because they affect the entire country.”
While the issues he is talking about cover the gamut of social welfare and immigrant absorption concerns, the most pressing concern these days is convincing the government that some 5,700 more individuals waiting in the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar should be checked to see if they are eligible for aliya.
Molla points out that parliamentarians who have become very vocal in this campaign come from across the political spectrum and include MKs such as Uri Ariel (National Union), Avraham Michaeli (Shas), Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), Yoel Hasson (Kadima), Lia Shemtov (Israel Beitenu) and Shelly Yacimovich
However, while Molla appreciates the growing support from among his fellow MKs in helping the Ethiopian community, the decision to bring in the remaining Falash Mura to Israel and bypass the enormous government bureaucracy lies in the hands of one person: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“I have spoken to Bibi about this matter several times and it’s really up to him to make a decision,” says Molla. Next week he will speak at the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Conference in Washington, DC, about the aliya challenges Israel faces, and he will use the forum to lobby the North American Jewish community to continue pushing the government to wind up the final phase of mass immigration from Ethiopia.
“I realize that he [Netanyahu] is under immense political and diplomatic pressure at the moment and obviously this is not his main concern, but it’s still an important humanitarian issue,” he notes.
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THE DEBATE over continuing aliya from Ethiopia has been raging since the early 1990s just after Israel brought in thousands of Ethiopian Jews, members of the Beta Israel community, under Operation Solomon.
Following that mass aliya, some officials declared that mass immigration from Ethiopia was over. However, throughout the 1990s hundreds more Jews – mainly Falash Mura, descendents of the Beta Israel whose ancestors had converted to Christianity – continued to
trickle into the country.
Although many of them had been practicing Christianity, a halachic ruling by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized them as Jews and they were able to immigrate under a clause in the Law of Entry. However, there remained a fierce debate about whether they should be allowed in at all.
In 2003 the government headed by Ariel Sharon answered that debate by passing a resolution to bring to Israel a further 20,000 Ethiopian olim, many of whom had already started to gather in Addis Ababa and in Gondar. The US Jewish community joined in too and undertook to fund the aliya, which would allow a few hundred to arrive here each month,
as part of Operation Promise.
Five years on, at the beginning of 2008, the Interior Ministry again announced that mass aliya from Ethiopia was now over and recalled its staff. But the move was premature and community members here, together with advocates from North American Jewry and key Israeli legislators, pointed out that some 9,000 Falash Mura remained in Gondar waiting to
be checked for immigration.
Under pressure, the government decided to return its representatives in September 2008 to check a further 3,000 people for eligibility for aliya. Today, the criteria for these people is that they or their spouse must demonstrate maternal links to Judaism, they must have a relative in Israel that submits a petition on their behalf and they must appear on a census compiled in 1999 known as the Efrati list.
Molla, who visited Ethiopia late last year at the request of Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to assess the situation on the ground, says that those who are still waiting live in squalid conditions and that a humanitarian crisis is brewing. So far, he says, under the 2008 resolution the ministry has still only checked 2,500 people of the 3,000 it committed to do so, but he is hopeful that the government will agree to go on and investigate the remaining 5,700 people.
“It’s a very political aliya. It has changed depending upon who is in power and who is the interior minister. Under the last government we had [Meir] Sheetrit, who was against the aliya, now we have Eli Yishai, who is for it. Decisions have been made and then changed, but
I believe that now there is a consensus on this issue and we will be able to persuade the prime minister,” explains Molla.
The issue has seen tempers flare and given rise to accusations from politicians and community leaders of racism against Ethiopians by the establishment.
“[Netanyahu] has to accept it,” continues Molla, who earlier this week pushed through the first reading of his private member’s bill that would set bringing in the remaining Ethiopian Jews into state law. “I believe that we cannot give up on Jews anywhere in the world. Allowing this aliya sets an important precedent for Jews everywhere.”Why is it so important to fight for the Falash Mura aliya?
Israel is heading for a real problem where immigration for Jews is concerned and [the Falash Mura] aliya clearly raises the question of who is a Jew or who should be allowed to come here.
We are a Jewish country and our role is to take in all Jews regardless. If the Falash Mura are considered Jews but are prevented from coming to Israel then it could put the future of all Jews wanting to come to Israel at risk.
Take the US for example: The majority of the Jews there are Reform or Conservative, with assimilation high. It’s possible that in the future they will also not be able to move to Israel if they want. We need to make sure that does not happen.Do you think Israel should consider changing the Law of Return?
I think the Law of Return should form the basis of our immigration policies, but I also believe that we can’t give up on any Jew or group of Jews.
When the State of Israel was first created there were voices of concern about bringing in the Jews from North Africa and Yemen but they were brought here and they contributed to building this country.Why do you think there have been forces working against the Falash Mura aliya?
I believe that Israeli society is very tired of this aliya. They know it is important but they also see that a lot of money and resources are being poured into the absorption of the people coming. But I do not believe that we can prevent an aliya because it is too expensive
or because there are social problems.
This aliya needs to be looked at as an investment for the future. Take myself as an example: I arrived here as a kid [he was 16 years old] from Sudan, I didn’t even have any shoes on my feet. Someone had to teach me how to switch on the light! But people came to the absorption
center with a basket of food for me and my family, then they sent me to school, I served in the army and now I am giving back to society, not only as a Knesset member, but by paying my taxes and being a good citizen.
And it’s not just me. I have nine brothers and two sisters, we are all employed and we all pay taxes. No one in my family takes from the state, except my parents, who are pensioners.
This will be the same with the Falash Mura eventually.You have raised the issue many times
that dissenting voices against this aliya is really based on skin
color. Do you really believe it is because of racism?
It is definitely a question of color. It is very difficult for people
to deal with what is different to them. We see the same problems also
with the Bnei Menashe [Indians who claim a lineage to Jews], their skin
is dark so people are automatically suspicious.Some people say they should not come here because they are not really Jews. How do you defend against those claims?
This is a fundamental issue. It is true that these people’s ancestors
became Christian and it is very hard for people to forgive them for
that or accept them as Jews again. It’s like when someone is found
guilty of a crime and spends time in jail, it’s difficult to accept them back into society afterwards.
The stigma attached to them is obvious and there is a fear that they
will come here as Christians, not as Jews. But I feel it is time to
forgive them and allow them to come back to Judaism.
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