Israeli Politician On Ethiopian Jews: ‘Zionism Is Colorblind’

Avraham Neguise (Likud) welcomes Israeli PM’s decision to greenlight immigration of 1,000 Ethiopians, but he and other advocates argue decision does not go far enough.

MEMBERS OF the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community attend a prayer service at the HaTikvah Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia, last September (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEMBERS OF the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community attend a prayer service at the HaTikvah Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia, last September
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Israeli government’s decision to approve the immigration of hundreds of Ethiopian Jews will not solve the plight of thousands remaining in camps in dire conditions in the African country, an Israeli parliamentarian has said.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that 1,000 members of the Falash Mura community living in Ethiopia would be brought to Israel. Avraham Neguise, a member of Israeli parliament in the ruling Likud party who was himself born in Ethiopia, called it a “burning issue” for Ethiopian Jews, who number over 144,000 in Israel as of the end of 2016.
“First of all, I welcome the prime minister’s decision, however it is not solving the problem because it is known that in [the cities of] Addis Ababa and Gondar 80 percent of [the community has] first-degree family members in Israel,” Neguise told The Media Line. “There are parents [living in Israel] who have sons and daughters in Ethiopia and they are not going to be reunited with their families following this decision. I wish the government would decide to bring all the rest of the community.”
In 2015, the cabinet greenlit measures to bring the remainder of Ethiopia’s Jews, some 9,000 people, however the law has yet to be fully implemented. The name Falash Mura refers to members of Ethiopian Jewry who were either forcibly converted to Christianity or did so under pressure from Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The majority of the community currently resides in transit camps in the cities of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and Gondar – where they waited for years, sometimes even decades, to be approved for immigration to Israel.
“This is a human issue, a Jewish issue, and Zionism is colorblind,” the lawmaker stressed. “Zionism [is not a question of] which community is cheaper to integrate and which is more expensive. Israel is the homeland of all Jewish people – poor or rich, educated or uneducated.”
Ethiopian Jews, historically referred to as Beta Israel (House of Israel), are believed to be descended from the ancient Israelites, possibly from the lost Tribe of Dan or from Jews who were dispersed from the Kingdom of Judah following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, roughly 95,000 Beta Israel have made Aliyah – the term used to denote Jewish immigration from the Diaspora to the Land of Israel. Most of the community immigrated in two waves assisted by the Israeli government in covert evacuations: Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991.
A Slow Trickle of Immigration
Neguise says he pushed Netanyahu to move forward with plans for Aliyah alongside fellow parliamentarian David Amsalem (Likud).
“I and the Knesset Member Amsalem have been talking to the prime minister about this issue,” the lawmaker said.
Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who has been the Falash Mura community’s spiritual leader for the past 27 years and who has written several books on Ethiopian Jewry, echoed Neguise’s sentiment that the current announcement would do little to end the issue of families being separated. Instead, he said, the slow trickle of Ethiopia’s remaining Jews into Israel will draw out the immigration process and make matters more painful for those involved.
“Many of the elders will die and many will be born,” Rabbi Waldman, who frequently travels back and forth between Israel and Ethiopia, explained to The Media Line, noting that the population would also increase over time as births exceed deaths. “In Addis Ababa, they’ve been waiting for Aliyah for 20 years and in Gondar anywhere from seven to 25 years.
“Their will to come to Israel -- as well as their connection to Judaism -- are very strong,” he continued. “If someone in the government thinks these delays will lead them to give up, they will not give up.”
Rabbi Waldman noted that while having the Falash Mura convert to Judaism en masse in Ethiopia before immigrating to Israel would indeed help to sidestep the current bureaucratic hurdles surrounding questions of their Jewishness, the conversion process cannot take place in the African nation because there is no local rabbinate. Because of this, members of the community have to complete their judaization process in Israel. Despite this, Waldman emphasized that the Falash Mura “are strongly Jewish.”
Others who have also worked tirelessly with remnants of Ethiopian Jewry over the years agreed with Neguise and Waldman that Netanyahu’s decision was “far too little, far too late.”
“Three years have elapsed since the government decided to bring all the 9,000 [Ethiopian] Jews to Israel,” Joseph Feit, a spokesman for the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) organization, told The Media Line. “The prime minister should have announced that all of them would be brought immediately. There’s no excuse for the delay.”
Feit, who has been an advocate for the Falash Mura for the past couple of decades, said he was somewhat skeptical the latest decision would be implemented in the near future.
“There have been agreements to bring the 1,000 almost a year ago and that wasn’t implemented,” he said.
The SSEJ mainly relies on donations and a team of volunteers to carry out its humanitarian mission in Ethiopia, which includes providing food distribution, medical services, community activities and classes on Judaism. Feit noted that the living conditions in the camps where most of the Falash Mura have gathered are dire and that a significant portion suffer from malnutrition.
“About half of the children 0-5 were clinically malnourished,” he said, pointing to a 2011 peer-reviewed study carried out by Prof. Arthur Eidelman, the former chief of pediatrics at Shaare Tsedek Hospital in Jerusalem, and Dr. Getahun Asres of the University in Gondar. “We’re only able to provide one meal per day to malnourished kids because we don’t have the money for it.”
Jewish Agency: A New Hope?
Advocates for the Falash Mura conveyed to The Media Line that despite the obstacles and the lack of faith in Netanyahu’s government to expediently implement immigration, they remained hopeful that the tide was turning for the better.
Many pointed to Isaac Herzog, the recently appointed chairman to the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), as being an ally in the struggle to bring Ethiopian Jewry’s remnants to Israel. JAFI, a nonprofit organization, is best known for its role in facilitating the immigration and absorption of Jews from the diaspora into Israel.
Following Netanyahu’s announcement regarding the approval of 1,000 Falash Mura immigrants, Herzog called the move a “step in the right direction.”
“But it is necessary to commit to bringing the rest of those waiting in the camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa to Israel to enable them to realize the Zionist dream,” the former opposition leader said in a written statement. “The Jewish Agency will be ready to absorb them at any time, and to help them fulfill their dream of reuniting with their relatives living in the State of Israel.”
Yigal Palmor, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at the Jewish Agency, told The Media Line that it was awaiting further instruction from Interior Minister Aryeh Deri -- who will be charged with implementing the measure. Palmor stressed their organization will rely on a list of criteria, to be determined by Deri, which will be used to determine which members of the Falash Mura will be accepted into Israel.
“We [will] check all those who correspond to the criteria and bring them to Israel, after which they will be housed at the Jewish Agency’s absorption centers where they will follow integration programs and a conversion process,” he said.
The issue of the Falash Mura’s immigration to Israel is complicated by their official status as Jews, according to the laws of the State of Israel, he said.
“All those [Ethiopians] who were recognized as Jews were already brought to Israel,” Palmor noted, stressing however that the ones who currently wish to immigrate have relatives in Israel and have begun to follow “organized Judaism.”
“But they are not eligible under the Law of Return,” he continued, referring to an Israeli law passed in 1950 that gives Jews the right to immigrate to Israel and be granted immediate citizenship. “The government made a decision a few years ago to bring them back under the Law of Entry, which is at the discretion of the minister of interior.”
The Law of Entry means that those in Ethiopia wishing to immigrate must be granted special permission to do so, and once they are approved, must undergo a conversion process at absorption centers in Israel managed by the Jewish Agency.
In 2002, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the Falash Mura had converted to Christianity under duress and were therefore Jews. Despite this, any Falash Mura who immigrates to Israel must undergo a formal conversion process.
“The Jewish Agency is responsible in bringing new immigrants only under [Israeli] government policy,” Palmor continued. “We are the implementation arm of the government as far as Aliyah is concerned.”
Neguise meanwhile contended that he would continue to push for the remaining community members to be brought to Israel.
“We will continue our struggle,” he stated. “We will continue our demand to bring the rest of the community and reunite them with their families.”
“This community are our brothers and sisters and they should be brought to Israel.”