Ethiopian immigrants greet family members in 2010.
(photo credit: BRIAN HENDLER)
Citing budget issues, the Prime Minister’s Office has decided to limit the number of Ethiopians entering the country this year, eliciting a harsh backlash from legislators and reopening the long-running controversy over how to handle those remaining behind in Africa following previous waves of immigration.
Following Monday’s announcement, MKs Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, chairs of the Knesset Immigration and Interior Committees respectively, accused the Netanyahu administration of looking for an excuse not to bring the rest of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel and threatened to break coalition discipline in retaliation for the move.
Speaking before a joint session of the two committees, a representative of the PMO said that despite a cabinet vote last November to bring some remaining 9,000 people waiting in transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa, only around 500 sick and elderly people will be allowed into the country in 2016.
The government is “lying to us and deceiving us,” calling cited budgetary considerations an excuse and saying that the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption could easily bring those waiting for permission to come.
Amsalem was even harsher in his condemnation, calling the government’s policy “a shameful trade in human beings as if they were potatoes” and citing what he said were Absorption Ministry and Jewish Agency figures, which he said showed that the Finance Ministry’s numbers for how much the immigrants’ absorption would cost were inflated by billions of Shekels.
A spokesman for the prime minister said that he does “not have anything to offer,” while the Absorption Ministry referred the question to the Finance Ministry.
Bnei Akiva secretary-general Danny Hirschberg called upon the government to immediately raise the number of immigrants allowed into the country, asserting in a statement that “every day that goes by endangering the lives of Jews there.”
Last November the cabinet unanimously approved an Interior Ministry proposal to resume aliya from Ethiopia, which was suspended in 2013.
Around 9,000 people have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar transit camps for the past several years in the hopes of making their way to the Jewish state. However, Jerusalem closed its doors in 2013 following a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport at which officials declared the “end” of Ethiopian aliya.
The fate of the prospective immigrants has been a matter of some debate, with Ethiopian- Israeli activists protesting what they see as the breaking up of families.
When Ethiopian aliya “officially ended,” supporters of the decision, such as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund chairman Eliezer Sandberg, described a radically different situation than that portrayed by the activists. He called those left in Ethiopia gentile relations of Ethiopians in Israel.
“I believe we all have relatives of relatives of relatives who don’t [meet] the criteria [for aliya]. I think it’s a mistake to blend together the joy of the return and the closing of the operation from Ethiopia with the personal issues of some people,” Sandberg told The Jerusalem Post
According to the cabinet decision, any Ethiopian who moved to Gondar or Addis Ababa after January 2013, is willing to convert to Judaism, and has relatives here who can apply for his acceptance, will be eligible to move.
At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise praised the decision, saying that it was “an important step that will enable the unification of Ethiopian families who are in the country, some of which have been split over the years.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday Minister of Immigrant Absorption Ze’ev Elkin announced that 700 members of the B’nai Menashe community in India will be brought to Israel this year instead of the 260 previously expected.