falash mura 88.
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Recent government statements regarding the number of Falash Mura still eligible to make aliya and claims that the mass immigration will be completed within the next year were denounced as "misinformation" this week by a newly established committee of experts on the issue of Ethiopian Jewry.
At the core of the debate is the controversy over exactly how many Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity under duress a century ago) are still eligible - according to a 2003 government decision - to immigrate to Israel. While official figures suggest that roughly 4,500 Falash Mura Jews remain and the operation to bring them here will end within a year, the newly formed Public Council for Ethiopian Jews believes the number to be closer to 9,000, many of whom already have close relatives living here.
The council, which includes former Supreme Court Judge Meir Shamgar, Professor Irwin Cotler, Judge Menachem Alon, Ethiopian Rabbi Yosef Adaneh, former MKs Geula Cohen, Naomi Hazan and Hanan Porat, as well as other members of the Ethiopian community and general population, met for the first time on Tuesday to discuss the situation. They decided to speak out against what they said was the government's misleading the public on the controversial aliya, with plans to fight for Falash Mura rights via the legal system and in the public forum.
"Shamgar [the committee's honorary head and the judge who made the Supreme Court ruling in 1995 to recognize descendants of Ethiopian Jews as eligible for aliya] opened the meeting by calling this an 'urgent matter,'" Cotler told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "Over the past few months statements emanating from the government claim that this chapter in Ethiopian aliya is about to be concluded, but we believe it will not be over until the government fully implements its 2003 decision and follows the law laid out by the Supreme Court in 1995."
That means allowing all those who can prove they descend on their maternal side from Jewish ancestors and that they have relatives already in Israel to make aliya.
"We say let the government check them all and then determine how many are left," added Cotler, who has been working with Ethiopian Jewry for more than 30 years. "We are prepared to fight this battle in the courts if necessary but for now we plan to bring the issue to the court of public opinion."
Cotler said that among the issues discussed at the meeting was the lack of humanitarian aid provided by the government to those waiting in Ethiopia to immigrate, causing them "unnecessary suffering," and the slow aliya process in relation to the successful absorption of more than 110,000 Ethiopian Jews who already live in Israel.
Rabbi Menachem Waldman, director of the Shvut Am Institute and an expert on the Falash Mura conversion process, is among those who have joined the lobby group. As a co-author of the 1999 Efrati census of Falash Mura, on which the State of Israel now bases its criteria of eligibility, Waldman is one of the government's harshest critics.
"There are definitely people whose names have been taken off the list," said Waldman, adding that the census, while useful as a guide, should not override the government's decision to allow people who can prove their Jewish matrilineal lineage to come here.
"The Ethiopians are the only Jewish community in the Diaspora to be singled out for such treatment," added Cotler. "Can you imagine the Jews of Canada being told that only 2,000 more are allowed to make aliya?"
In response, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which oversees much of the aliya operation in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where many of the Falash Mura await confirmation from the Israeli government that they are eligible, said it would continue to follow the official government guidelines.
Senior JAFI official in Ethiopia Ori Konforti confirmed to The Jerusalem Post in July that "within a year, give or take a month, all Israeli government and JAFI operations in Ethiopia would end." He also said that only 4,991 eligible for this aliya remained in the country, with 874 of those failing to apply for citizenship.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabene Hadad also said that the plan was to wind up the Ethiopian immigration within the next year, and that the office was acting according to government specifications. The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.