(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
The immigration to Israel of the Falash Mura is coming to a close with the government's announcement this week that all those eligible from Addis Ababa have arrived in Israel, and the application process for those from Ethiopia's Gondar province will be completed by the middle of the year.
The Falash Mura, believed to be Jews who converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century who left behind their Jewish identity, are not eligible to make aliya under the Law of Return. To facilitate their immigration, a special February 2003 government decision established guidelines and conditions for their immigration as individuals. The decision conditions eligibility on proving maternal Jewish descent and a commitment to convert to Judaism once in Israel.
The decision began a lengthy process in which potential immigrants were questioned and investigated. Over 90 percent of those claiming eligibility were approved for immigration, and 11,264 members of the group have already come to Israel since 2004, according to Interior Ministry figures.
On Wednesday, the ministry announced formally that "the State of Israel has finished bringing [eligible] Falash Mura from the Addis Ababa region."
The ministry also noted that in Gondar province, where many Falash Mura have awaited a response to their immigration applications, only 1,468 of the 6,899 remaining have been deemed eligible so far and will be brought to Israel soon at the current rate of 300 a month.
The ministry promised that all applications that have yet to be examined for Gondar Falash Mura will have a final answer by the middle of this year. The last of the eligible Falash Mura are expected to arrive sometime next year.
The stoppage has met with some anger and resistance in both Addis Ababa and Israel this week.
Couriers attempting to deliver refusal letters to the first batch out of 385 families in Addis Ababa, in which they were told their applications for immigration were refused, were confronted and forced to leave the families' camp. The letters explained the refusal to allow the families to immigrate on their having failed to meet "criteria established by the [Israeli] government." According to reports, police had to help the couriers escape angry family members who confronted them.
The government has promised to pursue other methods to deliver the notices, including buying ad space in local newspapers over the weekend, and posting the families' names in the local clinic. The Interior Ministry has already informed family members living in Israel that family members in Ethiopia were refused immigration.
"[The Interior Ministry] is rejecting people who should be in Israel. These aren't people from another tribe or non-Jews," Avraham Neguise, head of the South Wing of Zion organization that advocates for increased Ethiopian immigration, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Neguise's group has checked into the identities of many of those rejected, he says, and many "have brothers, sisters and grandparents in Israel. These people belong to our community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel."
He even accused the government of working to "drop the number [of Falash Mura immigrants] as much as possible" by investigating their bloodlines with abnormal scrutiny.
"Those who aren't entitled or don't belong to the community - we're not demanding that they come," he insisted, but "everyone who comes undergoes a giyur misafek [conversion to Judaism in cases of uncertainty]. So what's the problem? Why do they have to be divided from their families? If the government wants to end this once and for all, bring those 380 families and end it."
But some believe Israel has already been spectacularly generous to the Falash Mura.
Shlomo Molla is a member of the World Zionist Organization Executive who sits on the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors and is three slots short of being an MK for Kadima. He is also an Ethiopian Jew who made aliya in 1986, at age 16, by walking hundreds of kilometers across Ethiopia and Sudan.
"They have been Christians for four, five, even six generations," he told the Post on Thursday. "These people converted to Christianity. They don't have a Jewish lifestyle. I can tell you that every Christian today in Ethiopia would be willing to convert to Judaism in order to leave Ethiopia. This can't be a reason to let them come," he insisted.
Molla is willing to invest "every
effort to bring those who fulfill the government's criteria [for immigration]," but says the government decision to let them come was both "special" and "on an individual basis."
Since the Falash Mura are ineligible for aliya under the Law of Return, their arrival is done through the Law of Entry that is meant for family unification. "The government doesn't bring whole ethnic groups or religious groups from another country based on the Law of Entry, only as individuals," Molla noted. "All those who came following the [February 2003 government] decision arrived based on an individual decision."
Molla's opinion seems to be common in Israeli government circles, with senior government officials expressing sentiments in the past similar to Molla's. One Immigrant Absorption Ministry official noted that "it wasn't clear why everyone is so crazy about bringing these people to Israel. They're not part of the Jewish people."
Asked to respond to Neguise's claim that the Falash Mura are part of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, Molla accused Neguise of "being willing to bring a million people from Ethiopia. Those who remain in Ethiopia," he concluded flatly, "have no connection to Jews."