Absorbing the Falash Mura properly

Additional funding for social welfare programs, educational projects, financial aid, must go hand in hand with laudable government decision to continue this aliya process.

Falash Mura 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Falash Mura 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After years of reversed government decisions, nefarious comments and plain old bureaucracy, the government on Sunday took what appears to be a historic step towards wrapping up one of the Jewish people’s most significant chapters – granting the remaining Falash Mura, Ethiopians of Jewish descent, the right to make aliya.
While we applaud the government for fulfilling its role as the ingatherer of exiles and reaching out to poor, lost and forgotten Jewish tribes that want to return home, their return to Zion does not represent the end of their story, but rather a new beginning – one that requires careful, ongoing attention.
As the 7,846 people now living in squalid and inhumane conditions in specially created aid compounds in Gondar start to prepare for the long and difficult journey from third-world Africa to modern Israel, we need to make sure that this country is really up to the task of absorbing this new batch of immigrants and to work out how the Jewish world can make the process as painless as possible – less arduous, that is, than the experience of those members of the community who arrived here in past years.
Moving from one country to another is always tough, and although Israel has much experience in resettling new immigrants, no other group of newcomers faces such monumental challenges.
Of course there are Jewish Agency for Israel absorption centers that will provide shelter, education and other support for the immigrants and hopefully the Immigrant Absorption Ministry will do its part. There are also numerous non-profits – mostly funded by international donors – that will provide programs to help the new immigrants adjust to 21st century living here.
But that is not enough. For proof, just look at the multitude of social and educational problems that the 116,000- strong community already living here is grappling with.
ACCORDING TO the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, some 49,561 Ethiopian immigrants receive assistance from the social services and, in some towns, 90 percent of the immigrants require such aid.
Add to that, the disproportionately large number of Ethiopian women (three out of 16) who have been murdered by their husbands this year and the large numbers of Ethiopian students who drop out of high school before matriculation or those who do not succeed in their schooling because of cultural differences or racial discrimination.
We must also mention the barriers faced by those who are academically able but ultimately not accepted to higher learning or miss out on certain jobs because of plain, old-fashioned ignorance in mainstream Israeli society.
Set all this against the backdrop of the National Insurance Institute Poverty Report released last week, which found that a significant number of the 435,100 families living below the poverty line are immigrant families, and we have a frequently dismal picture of life for many members of this immigrant community.
SO WHAT more should the government, and the concerned international players, do to step up to the renewed challenge of Ethiopian integration and absorption? The question has been asked – but inadequately answered – before. Four years ago, then-immigrant absorption minister Ze’ev Boim announced a “comprehensive plan” aimed at improving the absorption of Ethiopian olim into Israeli society; a year later, after Boim’s term had ended, the NIS 800 million plan was still under negotiation with the Treasury.
Eventually, in February 2008, it was approved, yet a year later it was still stalled when the Finance Ministry decided to divide it up and return the various facets of the plan back to each ministry involved. The latest twist in that saga is a High Court petition by a handful of grass-roots Ethiopian rights groups that demand it be put back on the government’s agenda.
This plan needs to be reinstated by the government in the format that was originally approved. And the additional funding for social welfare programs, educational projects and financial aid for young Ethiopian families to purchase homes, must go hand in hand with the laudable government decision to continue this aliya process.
If all this is done, if the international Jewish community exerts even half the pressure and provides even half the financial contributions it did to help ensure the remaining Falash Mura would be brought to Israel, then the Ethiopian immigrants’ future here might just look a little brighter.