Ethiopian vs Ukrainian immigrants - analysis

While a plan was approved to absorb up to 100,000 new immigrants from Ukraine and Russia, the debate has left a bad taste in people's mouths.

 Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is seen greeting Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel through Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022. (photo credit: Noga Melasa/Aliyah and Integration Ministry)
Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is seen greeting Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel through Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: Noga Melasa/Aliyah and Integration Ministry)

Monday’s cabinet meeting to discuss Israel’s policy toward Ukrainian immigrants and refugees won’t go down as one of this government’s brighter moments.

Not because of the decision made – a plan approved to absorb up to 100,000 new immigrants from Ukraine and Russia. No, it was rather the unfortunate tenor of the discussion, and some comments made in bad taste.

What comments?

One came from Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, after Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said that local council heads prefer Ukrainian immigrants.

“Some of them only want Ukrainian women,” Liberman was quoted saying, with Yediot Aharonot reporting that his office said that he immediately apologized for the remark and asked that it be struck from the protocol.

 ETHIOPIAN ALIYAH: Falashmura community members arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport,  March 11. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) ETHIOPIAN ALIYAH: Falashmura community members arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 11. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Or another comment Yediot attributed to Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, in response to Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata’s criticism that the ministers were not showing the same degree of sympathy and compassion for Ethiopians trying to flee their country wracked by war as they are of Ukrainians.

“European wars impact me more than war in Africa,” Yediot quoted Shai as saying. According to other media reports, he joked, “We’re from Europe.”

Tamano-Shata, who came to Israel at the age of three from Ethiopia on Operation Moses, understandably took umbrage for the comment and demanded that he retract it.

“No one who is raising their voice here opened their mouth for those eligible [to immigrate] under the Law of Return from Ethiopia,” she reportedly said. “This is simply the hypocrisy of the white man. I work tirelessly for those eligible under the Law of Return from Ukraine. There is a great deal of knowledge accumulated in the ministry, and we will absorb them well. But I want to add the additional voice of Ethiopian Jews. I demand the emergency rescue of those eligible under the Law of Return from Tigray and Ethiopia who are in the midst of a war for a year already.”

Tamano-Shata is both wrong... and right.

She is wrong that there are still those in Ethiopia who qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return. According to Jewish Agency sources, there is no one left in Ethiopia who qualifies for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return – all those who did qualify are already in the country, which is how the number of Ethiopian Jews here has gone from only a few hundred in 1983, before the major clandestine operations began to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, to some 140,000 today.

Under the Law of Return, anyone with one Jewish grandparent is allowed to make aliyah and entitled to automatic citizenship. Agency sources said that Ethiopians now waiting to immigrate to Israel do not meet those criteria. Those Ethiopians in camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa who were approved by a cabinet decision in 2015 to immigrate are those who have relatives in Israel and claim some Jewish ancestry, but who themselves are not Jewish nor the descendants of a Jewish grandparent.

As such, when they come to Israel they are not given automatic citizenship but are allowed in under special permission granted by the Interior Ministry. They then undergo a conversion process, and once that is concluded they are granted citizenship. Were the Ethiopians eligible under the Law of Return, a special cabinet meeting or Interior Ministry permission to immigrate would not be needed – they could just arrive as citizens under the Law of Return after proving they have at least one Jewish grandparent.

The situation is different in Ukraine, from where a significant immigration wave is now expected. Unlike in Ethiopia, there are an estimated 200,000 Ukrainians eligible to immigrate because they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Shaked’s decision on Sunday to let Ukrainians with first-degree relatives into the country for a short period is for those who do not have at least one Jewish grandparent.

What is Tamano-Shata right about? That Israel is showing more generosity and empathy to refugees from Europe than it has to refugees from Africa. Israel did not, for instance, announce that it was opening its doors to those fleeing the Ethiopian civil war, as some government ministers want it to do now for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. For example: Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper said on Tuesday that Israel should not turn away any Ukrainian refugee banging on the door for entrance. That same sentiment has not been voiced widely concerning wars in Africa.

By the same token, however, those fleeing the Ethiopian civil war did not come knocking on Israel’s doors, as some Ukrainian refugees have done. The vast majority of African migrants who have entered Israel in recent years were coming in search of economic opportunities – better living conditions – rather than fleeing hot wars (Sudanese refugees from Darfur being the exception).

If Tamano-Shata is correct in criticizing Israel for a double standard regarding those displaced by the war in Ukraine as opposed to those displaced by wars in Africa, this is by no means a unique Israel phenomenon. Just contrast the way European countries – those bordering Ukraine like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, as well as other European countries – have opened their gates to Ukrainian refugees, as opposed to the way they have resisted absorbing refugees fleeing Africa and wars in the Middle East.

It is hard not to see that as a double standard as well.