The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) may increase its role and use its influence to push the government to step up efforts and bring to Israel more than 8,000 members of the Falash Mura community remaining in Ethiopia, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
In a meeting held last week between representatives of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Philadelphia and JAFI Executive Chairman Natan Sharansky, the JAFI head said that he was in favor of bringing the remaining Ethiopian Jews - most of whom are cared for at a North American Coalition on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ)-run camp in Gondar - to Israel if their Jewish ancestry could be proved and that he would even be interested in taking over some of NACOEJ's responsibilities in Ethiopia.
Responding directly to a question from Kenneth Kaiserman, a federation trustee and co-chair of the Center for Israel and Overseas, Sharansky also said he planned to meet next week with Interior Minister Eli Yishai to push for increased efforts to bring in those Falash Mura (Ethiopians of Jewish origin whose ancestors converted to Christianity centuries ago) who fit the government's criteria.
A spokesman for JAFI told the Post that this was indeed the direction Sharansky was taking, but would not confirm whether all or part of what was reported from the meeting was accurate.
He did say, however, that JAFI representatives, including Sharansky, were set to meet next week with Yishai.
"If this is true then it's really good news, the best news I've heard in ages," commented Dr. Avraham Neguise, executive director of South Wing to Zion, a grass-roots organization that has been lobbying for the government to continue the Falash Mura aliya.
"We have been saying for ages that JAFI should continue its work in Ethiopia and if it really moves in this direction then the organization will go down in the history books."
JAFI's vocal support for continuing aliya from the east African country is an about-face from its hesitant approach over the last two years and follows an ongoing debate over the increasing costs and social problems presented by the Ethiopian immigration process.
In July 2007, senior JAFI official in Ethiopia Ori Konforti told the Post that all remaining Ethiopians eligible under Israeli government criteria to make aliya would be in Israel within one year. Indeed, following that announcement, organizations working in the region did appear to be winding down their operations there, with the Interior Ministry even recalling its Gondar-based staff in January 2008.
However, subsequent protests from local community members, representatives of North American Jewry and several key Israeli legislators pointed out that some 9,000-15,000 Falash Mura still needed to be assessed for immigration, causing the government to rethink the decision.
In September 2008, the Interior Ministry announced that its representatives would return to Ethiopia and continue checking the eligibility for aliya of some 3,000 people.
Less than a year later, however, the matter was in doubt again when a section of the 2009 Economic Arrangements Bill claimed that the overall aliya process for the Falash Mura community was too costly and suggested that previous government decisions be reversed. Under pressure from the pro-Falash Mura lobby, however, this section was dropped from the bill.
In addition, a health clinic run by the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which had been providing both basic and life-saving treatments to the Jewish community in Gondar, closed its doors in May, leaving many in the community without services.
Earlier this month, however, a spokeswoman for the JDC told the Post that the organization planned to reopen the clinic in the near future.
Neguise said that his contacts in Gondar had informed him earlier this week that registration for the clinic was to begin on Thursday.
"The community is in a very bad state," he said. "They are living in Gondar, waiting for aliya, and they have no way to return to their villages."
Neguise added, however, "We are moving in a positive direction and I am very optimistic now that everyone will soon realize the need to bring in these people."