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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
North American Jewish leaders are calling a Finance Ministry proposal to reduce the rate of Ethiopian aliya a major breach of trust that could have serious ramifications for Israel-Diaspora relations.
The move comes after the American Jewish community has committed to collect more than $300 million to help Israelis affected by the recent war. Now some are questioning the Diaspora's role in raising money for Israel given that the earlier pet funding priority of Ethiopian aliya, undertaken at the behest of the government, has been seriously downgraded.
Meanwhile, Ethiopians, incensed by the proposed cut, plan to hold hunger strikes in Israel and Gondar, Ethiopia, starting Wednesday unless the government agrees to cancel the reduction in a vote on the budget to be held Tuesday.
In June, the cabinet decided not to implement its prior decision to increase the pace of Ethiopian absorption from 300 to 600 a month - which itself engendered Diaspora outrage - saying the issue would be addressed during the upcoming discussions on the 2007 state budget. In the new proposal presented by Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, the number ended up being cut from 300 to 150 as part of belt-tightening after the war.
The step, if it were to go through, "would be a tragic mistake," according to an internal letter to the board of trustees of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for all North American Jewish federations. The letter, in an unusual stance, urges board members to lobby Israeli government officials for a return to at least the 300 figure.
"The proposed change," it states, "would represent a unilateral abrogation of an understanding between the Diaspora and the government," referring to Operation Promise, the $100 million UJC fund-raising campaign to help absorb Ethiopians undertaken at the request of prime minister Ariel Sharon after his government decided the number should be raised to 600 in January 2005.
UJC chairman Robert Goldberg said Operation Promise, which has raised $80m. so far, had been halted and donors would be given the option to get their money back should the absorption rate be cut.
"It's a slap in the face," he said of the budget proposal. "It's a breach of trust."
He said UJC's emergency campaign to help northern Israel had already reached $270m., with a goal of $300m.
"Everything the government asked us to do, we did," he said, listing aid for projects such as summer camps for children from the North and air conditioners for bomb shelters. "The feeling going forward is not going to be the same."
Some ministers have backed the Diaspora position. Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim said he opposed the proposed reduction. "The government needs to put aliya in the center of its agenda," he said.
In cabinet discussions on the issue held last week, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter criticized the timing of the decision, coming as it does on the heels of American Jewry's large fund-raising campaigns.
"Now is the time to thank them [the Diaspora]," he said, not take a position they so strenuously oppose.
A source in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said the premier was studying the issue and that no decision had been made, as the budget wouldn't even be sent to the Knesset until after the cabinet vote on Tuesday.
Groups representing a variety of interests are continuing to negotiate with the Finance Ministry ahead of that meeting, and a long process of revision will take place in the Knesset.
The Finance Ministry wouldn't elaborate on the reason for the proposed reduction or respond to the criticism of North American Jewry.
But in the past, opponents of accelerated Ethiopian aliya have said that it costs more to absorb this group - estimated at 13,000 to 18,000 people - than other immigrants and that they have a different status than other Jewish groups. Called Falash Mura because they are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity and have since returned to Judaism, they come to Israel under the more restrictive Law of Entry rather than the Law of Return applying to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.
Falash Mura advocates, however, point out that the Chief Rabbinate has deemed them eligible for aliya and say that cost has never been a consideration in taking in Jews.
In addition to their lobbying efforts, some of these advocates are proceeding with a previously initiated lawsuit in an effort to force the government to implement earlier decisions on increasing the rate of absorption.
Irwin Cotler, a human rights lawyer who served as Canada's justice minister until February, strongly rebuked the government for the proposed cut.
"The government decision is as shameful as it is shocking," he said in Jerusalem, where he is currently visiting. He said the move showed "contempt of court and the rule of law" because the state had previously told the High Court it would increase the rate of absorption.
He also cautioned that it "could have serious repercussions on Israel's relationship with American Jewry" since the subject had now become "a trust issue."
He added that the delay in doubling the absorption rate - which originally would have brought all of the remaining eligible Ethiopians to Israel by the end of 2007 but now would only be discussed in 2008 - would "increase the pain and suffering of an already aggrieved people."
Avraham Neguise, who heads the Israeli Ethiopian advocacy group South Wing to Zion, said Ethiopians in Gondar would go on a hunger strike despite poor health and sanitary conditions.
"They say we are dying anyway because the government is playing a game with our future," he said.