The complicated issue of Ethiopian Jewish heritage and eligibility for aliya came to the fore again on Wednesday morning, as thousands of demonstrators clashed with police outside the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, local media there reported.
“I can confirm that about 80 people were injured in the demonstrations, four were taken to the hospital and all but one person, who is in serious condition, have been sent home,” Asher Seyum, the Jewish Agency representative in Ethiopia, told The Jerusalem Post.
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He said that according to his sources, the demonstrators – who claim Jewish ancestry and have demanded for years the right to immigrate to Israel – held their protest without the relevant permission. When local police attempted to disperse the crowd, the situation turned violent.
An additional 80 people were arrested, reports from the Africa Review and the Associated Press said.
While the majority of reports from the scene described the demonstrators as “Ethiopian Jews” and said they were “demanding that the Israeli government consider their applications to travel to their homeland to rejoin their families,” Seyum and other Ethiopian Jewish sources denied that this community is actually Jewish.
“They live illegally in a former Jewish Agency compound near the Israeli Embassy, and they claim that they have Jewish roots,” explained Seyum.
“Most of them have been checked for eligibility by the State of Israel and most of them have been turned down for aliya, but they refuse to give up.”
In an interview in the Africa Review, one young demonstrator described how police “tore up an Israeli flag and desecrated our synagogue.”
Even though this specific group does not fit the criteria to make aliya under guidelines originally laid out by the Israeli government in 2003 and approved again last November, it still chooses to follow Jewish tradition and religious practices. Many of the men wear kippot and the group prays daily in a makeshift synagogue.
According to Ethiopian Knesset Member Shlomo Molla, a vocal advocate for continuing eligibility checks for a group of Ethiopians that claims Jewish ancestry (referred to as Falash Mura), the Israeli government, along with the Jewish Agency, closed its compound in Addis Ababa six years ago after completing background checks of some 10,000 Falash Mura.
“Roughly 2,000 people did not meet the criteria and were turned down for aliya,” he explained, adding that among the community in Gondar a further 3,000 were also not approved to immigrate to Israel.
Both Molla and Seyum said they believed that those are the people who often protest outside the Israeli Embassy for the right to move to Israel.
“The problem is that if you widen the criteria, then there will be no end to the aliya from Ethiopia,” said Seyum. “I have worked out that from one person who is accepted for aliya you could trace another 60 people who might be able to argue that they have the right to come, too.”
The issue of Ethiopian Jewish aliya has become particularly controversial in recent years, with the government backtracking regularly on its position regarding the Falash Mura.
There have also been fierce debates among the Ethiopian community in Israel over who should be allowed to move to the Jewish state, and who should not.
Four years ago, the government announced plans to wind up its aliya operation in Ethiopia – and by the start of 2008 the Interior Ministry had recalled its Gondar-based staff.
However, subsequent protests from local community members, representatives of North American Jewry and several key Israeli legislators insisted that up to 9,000 Falash Mura still needed to be assessed for immigration according to a 2003 resolution.
The resolution is based on a national census, the Efrati List – compiled by then-Interior Ministry director- general David Efrati in 1999.
To be eligible, aliya applicants must appear on this list, have relatives to sponsor them living in Israel and be able to trace their maternal lineage back seven years to Jewish roots.
In September, 2009, the Interior Ministry announced that its representatives would be returning to Ethiopia to continue eligibility checks, but less than a year later the matter came under doubt again when the Treasury claimed the process was too costly.
Further pressure from the pro-Falash Mura lobby soon reversed this decision, and last November the cabinet finally gave approval for eligibility checks to be carried out on 8,700 people with a view to ending the organized aliya for good.
At the core of the debate over this complicated African immigration story is the government’s willingness to recognize the 1999 Efrati list, which originally included three volumes: Falash Mura living in Addis Ababa, those in Gondar and others from outlying villages.
Interior Ministry officials at the time decided to focus only on those from the two cities, ignoring the list from the villages.
However, as people left the cities, more Falash Mura arrived from the villages, and those are the people who today are waiting in Gondar to immigrate to Israel.
“It is important to wrap up this issue as fast as possible,” MK Molla said Wednesday.
“The longer we wait, the larger these groups claiming Jewish heritage will grow, and then this story will never end.”
Agency spokesman Haviv Rettig Gur told the Post that even though organized aliya from Ethiopia will soon be over, “Any Jew and any aliyaeligible person can make aliya, including from Ethiopia. What is changing is that the special aliya track that goes beyond the regular aliya absorption package is ending,” he said, adding: “If Jews remain in Ethiopia, they’ll still be able to make aliya. Those deemed ineligible for either track are not eligible for aliya.”Gil Shefler contributed to this report.