'Let my people in!'

If Israel really wants aliya, let's bring the 18,000 Falash Mura home to Zion

ethiopian child 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethiopian child 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For a country that says it wants more new immigrants, Israel sure has a funny way of showing it. This past Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. As at all such gatherings, the participants waved banners and placards, shouted slogans and catchphrases, and appealed for their elected representatives to heed their calls and take action. Those in attendance were not calling for Jews to be allowed out of some foreign land, however. Ironically enough, they were there to demand that Israel let Jews in. The crowd consisted largely of Ethiopian immigrants, many of whom still have loved ones stuck in Ethiopia thanks in no small measure to the government's indifference, incompetence and utter lack of concern. It has been eight months since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bowed to pressure at home and abroad and agreed to increase the number of Falash Mura immigrants from Ethiopia allowed in to Israel each month. Descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, many against their will, the Falash Mura now wish to rejoin the Jewish people, and there are still some 18,000 of them waiting to come home to Zion. After pleas from a broad spectrum of prominent Jews, ranging from Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi to the Canadian Minister of Justice to the head of the Reform movement, Sharon promised that beginning in June, the monthly quota of Falash Mura aliya would double from 300 to 600 souls. We are now in the month of November, and that has yet to happen. Indeed, according to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the number of immigrants from Ethiopia in the month of June, the month when Sharon's new policy was due to take effect't was - you guessed it - just 300. In July, it was 303, in August just 302, and in September 440, all far short of what the Prime Minister had promised. Why does the number 600 matter so much? Do some quick arithmetic, and you'll see why. With some 18,000 Falash Mura still waiting in Ethiopia to make aliya, a monthly rate of 300 translates into another 6 years for the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to be brought home. Double the monthly allotment to 600, and we can restore this ancient community to the land of their ancestors in just two-and-a-half years instead. As a result of the government's ongoing failure to speed up Falash Mura aliya, Ethiopian families will continue to be needlessly divided, and future immigrants might be compelled to wait until 2011 or even later before seeing their loved ones again. Delaying the arrival of the Falash Mura only places them at greater risk, as Ethiopia contends with an ongoing food crisis, rising rates of HIV/AIDS, and a simmering conflict with neighboring Eritrea. A recent report by the UN's World Food Program noted ominously that, "Twenty years after famine killed an estimated one million people in Ethiopia, hunger still looms large in a country where population growth is among the highest in the world." "More than three million people," the report stated, "face persistent hunger and need emergency food aid" in Ethiopia. The situation becomes even more absurd when one considers that it was back in February 2003 that the Israeli cabinet, headed by none other than Sharon himself, formally adopted a decision to bring the remaining Falash Mura to Israel. In effect, then, the protesters this week weren't actually seeking to force a change in the government's policy. They were just trying to convince Sharon to implement his own decision from over two years ago. So, just how does the government explain its failure to boost the monthly quota of Ethiopian immigrants? Why, by blaming someone else, of course. On Sunday, Reuters reported that an unnamed spokesman for the Absorption Ministry "blamed the delay on Ethiopian elections, saying it had been impossible to finalize details sooner." That sounds reasonable enough, except for one minor catch: the Ethiopian elections were held back in May, before the monthly Falash Mura quota was set to double. Moreover, the balloting was won by the incumbent, Meles Zenawi, so Ethiopia's policy remained unchanged. Nice try, Mr. Spokesman. But the obstacle to increased Ethiopian immigration lies in Jerusalem, not in Addis Ababa. Believe it or not, the Falash Mura aren't the only potential immigrants that are being stonewalled by Israel's government. There are thousands of others out there too, from the 15,000 Subbotnik Jews of the former Soviet Union, to the 7,000 Bnei Menashe of northeastern India. The Subbotniks are descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, and who clung to their new-found faith despite Czarist oppression, Nazi persecution and Communist cruelty. Thousands moved freely to Israel until the Interior Ministry inexplicably halted their arrival in 2003. The Bnei Menashe, a group claiming descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, were formally recognized by the Chief Rabbinate on March 30 as "descendants of Israel," but Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz seems in no hurry to welcome them home, either. Taken together, these three groups - the Falash Mura, the Subbotniks and the Bnei Menashe - number over 40,000, all of whom wish to tie their fate with the people of Israel and make aliya. The only thing preventing them from doing so is Israel's government, which offers little more than empty excuses to justify this outrageous situation. In the past, various ministers have pleaded poverty, claiming it would cost too much for Israel to absorb so many immigrants all at once. In truth, it is not a lack of finances, but a lack of will that lies at the root of the problem. The Falash Mura, the Subbotniks and the Bnei Menashe may not come from affluent backgrounds, nor bring with them the resources available to other immigrant groups. But they are our brothers and sisters, our flesh and blood, and they long to return after an arduous and often painful journey in Exile. The time has come for the government, together with world Jewry, to stop dilly-dallying and get to work. The time has come to bring our lost brethren home to the Jewish people and to the Jewish state. The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people.