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The government is denying the rights of Ethiopian Jews waiting to come to Israel, as well as breaching its own decisions and commitments to the High Court concerning the population, former Canadian Justice Minister and international human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler charged Wednesday.
"This is almost the only case in Israeli history where the government is impeding aliya of those entitled under the law [to] come here. To me this is a fundamental denial of rights, of equality before the law, of equal protection of the law, and their rights to due process," Cotler told The Jerusalem Post. "I wouldn't say this lightly or easily."
Cotler, currently in Israel, spoke soon before a separate group of Diaspora Jewish leaders pressed the issue of bringing the Falash Mura to Israel in a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday night.
Carole Solomon, Chairwoman of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, described the meeting as "cordial" and "supportive," but said that when it came to increasing the rate of immigration of Falash Mura, "there were no promises given."
Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, noted that Olmert elaborated on the subject without a great deal of prompting from his guests.
"It showed he was conscious of the issue, that he was well aware of our desires, and he'll be serious about addressing it," Hoffman said. "I don't think the government has changed its opinion in the past 24 hours," he added. "[But] I think they're more conscious of the intensity of our feelings."
Diaspora communities undertook a $100 million fundraising campaign in 2005 at the behest of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in concert with a government decision to double the immigration rate of Falash Mura from 300 to 600 a month. But despite a formal government decision on the matter that year - and a previous government decision in 2003 to bring them immediately - the rate never increased. Last week the new government postponed any decision on changing the rate of absorption for at least two months, a move which Jewish leaders warned would have a disastrous effect on their fundraising. Some $60m. has been raised so far.
The government's inaction is also "a breach of agreements that they made with the leadership of North American Jewry," according to Cotler.
Cotler, who addressed the Jewish Agency Assembly earlier in the week, has served as legal counsel to groups pushing the government to enforce its decisions to bring the Falash Mura to Israel. He expressed his frustration that - after a hiatus from the subject while serving as justice minister for the past two-and-a-half years - he returned to the case this spring and found that nothing had changed in the government's policy towards Ethiopians.
He called the 300 figure "arbitrary" and the government's unwillingness to enforce its own decisions, which have also served as the basic for High Court action, a breach of "its own normative responsibility to act in a fair, accountable and humane fashion."
Cotler referenced the "alleged" budgetary issues the government recently cited for its delay in bringing the Falash Mura before stating, "I don't know of a case ever in Israel where a government conditioned aliya on budgetary considerations."
He concluded, "We have had a proactive approach to bringing olim from everywhere else, and a prejudicial approach with regard to Ethiopian Jews."