Aliyah minister hopes to bring all Falash Mura Jews to Israel in 2 years

IMMIGRATION AFFAIRS: ‘We don’t want immigrants to suffer the same problems we’ve seen in the past’

PNINA TAMANO-SHATA: We are the generation that merited to be the one that returned to Zion, and we need to encourage aliyah because this is the home of all Jews. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PNINA TAMANO-SHATA: We are the generation that merited to be the one that returned to Zion, and we need to encourage aliyah because this is the home of all Jews.
In less than 24 months, the State of Israel, which was built on the founding principle of the ingathering of the exiles of the Jewish people, has had four immigration ministers, three of them serving as interim appointees, one of whom whose other job was prime minister.
Following the formation of the government last month, the country finally got a new, permanent aliyah and integration minister, MK Pnina Tamano-Shata of Blue and White, who at the age of 39 became the first Ethiopian-Israeli minister born in Ethiopia.
Tamano-Shata comes into office at a strange time for an immigration minister. On the one hand, interest in aliyah has risen dramatically in several parts of the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects it has had on several big Jewish communities.
At the same time, the numbers of immigrants arriving has declined sharply due to the numerous difficulties presented by the global health crisis, creating a unique challenge for the Jewish state: how to actualize the potential for mass aliyah, given the logistical and bureaucratic constraints.
Tamano-Shata acknowledges the difficulties, and attributes the decline in the number of immigrants in 2020, compared with the 2019 numbers, to the cessation of the overwhelming majority of commercial flights on which immigrants arrive.
But she insists that attaining the kind of immigration numbers her ministry has projected, 90,000 in the next 18 months by a recent estimate, is feasible as long as concrete plans are drawn up and put into action.
“As soon as the skies reopen, we can begin to clear the bottleneck that has developed for immigrants ready to come,” says the minister.
She is also aware of past failures, such as the apparent failure to capitalize on increased interest in aliyah of French Jews after terrorist attacks against the community in 2015.
And she notes that mass aliyah will not happen if those who arrive first experience serious difficulties, which ultimately dissuade others from coming.
“We don’t want immigrants to suffer the same problems we’ve seen in the past,” says the minister.
“There is a reciprocal connection between aliyah and absorption. If absorption does not go well, then potential immigrants will hear about this back home and won’t want to come.”
Picking up again on some of the biggest challenges French immigrants have experienced since 2015, such as problems coping with the short school day compared to that in France and other Western nations, Tamano-Shata says that after-school activities should be subsidized for such immigrants, extra assistants provided to help them overcome language barriers in school, and more language studies in ulpan provided for immigrants who want more than the basic course.
And she is aware of one the biggest problems and deterrents against aliyah – the concern with finding a job, noting that currently 28% of new immigrants are unemployed due to the COVID-19 epidemic, “a very worrying figure,” she says.
Tamano-Shata says that she is therefore “fighting with the Finance Ministry” for a special budget for assisting new immigrants in gaining employment, which would be used to encourage employers to take on new immigrants by subsidizing part of their salaries.
Additionally, the new funds would be used to increase professional and vocational training for new immigrants in various fields.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to help new immigrants, to show them we are a warm home for them, because they are not our guests, this is their home,” she avers. “We are the generation that merited to be the one that returned to Zion, and we need to encourage aliyah because this is the home of all Jews.”
Turning to the ongoing failure to bring the approximately 7,500 members of the Falash Mura community, as resolved by government resolution 716 in 2015, Tamano-Shata says that she is drawing up a comprehensive plan to bring an end to the interminable saga.
The Falash Mura community was originally part of the larger Beta Israel Jewish community in Ethiopia but converted to Christianity in the late 19th century.
After the mass aliyah of the Beta Israel community, Israel subsequently brought the majority of the Falash Mura community to Israel as well, although some 12,000 to 14,000 people now remain in the camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where they gathered.
Approximately 9,000 were given the right to come to Israel under family reunification principles, since the Falash Mura do not have the right to citizenship under the Law of Return, since their ancestors converted away from Judaism.
Due to the different terms of criteria used by the state to bring the Falash Mura to Israel, families were often divided, whereby some parents were allowed to come to Israel while their adult children were not, siblings were left behind, or children were brought without their parents.
Despite the government decision of 2015 which was supposed to bring to Israel 9,000 of the community by 2020, 7,000-7,500 still remain.
Tamano-Shata says that she recently met with Interior Minister Arye Deri, who has ultimate authority over the immigration of the Falash Mura, to discuss the issue, and says that he is empathetic with the plight of the community.
“We need to bring the rest of the 7,000 people waiting there immediately,” says the minister, reasserting her comments from last week that it is “not Jewish to divide families.”
And she says a public committee should be established to review the claims of the remainder of camp residents, with the participation of the kessim, the religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community, who are experts in its genealogy.
Those who are not accepted need to be given “a final answer” and, with the help of the Ethiopian government, given adequate residency provisions in their cities, something they are currently denied.
Crucially, she says, the camps have to be closed down, as part of her comprehensive plan, since, she asserts, “the camps will otherwise continue to grow.”
Tamano-Shata is, however, cautious about discussing the precise details of how the aliyah of those approved will be budgeted and what kind of timetable there will be.
She says, hesitantly, that she hopes those remaining in Ethiopia could be brought here “from within 18 months to two years,” and that the budget for it could be either in the coming state budget or separately.
The plan, which the minister hopes to submit to the government by the end of the year, will, however, require approval by the cabinet despite the 2015 cabinet resolution.
TAMANO-SHATA also addressed the impact, or lack thereof, of the current global outpouring of demand for racial justice, following the killing of George Floyd in the US.
Noting the racism and discrimination that the Ethiopian-Israeli community has experienced, including over-policing and police brutality, she says that she does not feel there is sufficient solidarity in Israel with the plight of the community.
In particular, Tamano-Shata observes that while some Israelis, including celebrities, expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, they were insufficiently supportive of the Ethiopian community when it protested last year at the killing of Solomon Tekah by a police officer.
“When it’s far away, you can identify with a people’s struggle, but when it’s closer to home, it’s harder, apparently,” she says.
“Our generation isn’t willing to suffer, and justly so. I will sit on the ministerial committee for integrating Ethiopian Jews, and I will fight against racism and discrimination. I won’t accept that we are vastly overrepresented in criminal cases that are opened against Ethiopian youth, the high detention rate of Ethiopian youth.”
She added that the state prosecution needs to take a harder hand against police accused of using excessive force, and in particular that the charges against the officer who killed Tekah were not severe enough.
“There isn’t enough racial solidarity here in Israel. At the moment of truth, no. White people need to stop being afraid of black people. White people need to stop looking at black as something negative,” she declares.