Jewish Agency calls on gov’t to expedite Falash Mura immigration from Ethiopia

Professional team to fly to Ethiopia in March to determine whether to restart funding for health, education programs.

Members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
The Jewish Agency has called on the government to expedite the immigration to Israel of some 8,000 members of the so-called Falash Mura community of descendants of Jews in Ethiopia, and has established a committee to recommend policy for this goal.
The committee is now evaluating whether the agency would restart operations in Ethiopia, specifically to provide health and humanitarian assistance to this community, as well as educational and training initiatives, but no decision has yet been made to fund such activities.
A professional team from the agency is expected to leave for Ethiopia in March to examine the issue on the ground, and a decision on whether to restart funding will then be made.
The new committee convened for the first time on Tuesday and called for the government to fully implement government resolution 716 from 2015, which determined then to bring all remaining 9,300 members of the community from Ethiopia to Israel.
Since that time, only 1,300 arrived during 2016, and the immigration process has stalled.
Last year, the government approved the immigration of another 1,000 members of the community, the first 83 of whom arrived earlier this month.
The agency’s decision on Tuesday urged the government to allocate sufficient funds to bring the remaining 8,000 people to Israel “in a timely manner.”
The new committee will begin drawing up policies to push the government toward the expedited immigration of those who remain, provide for the humanitarian needs of those still in Addis Ababa and Gondar, and assist with the integration of the new immigrants into Israeli society. Immigrants often face severe difficulties in their transition from Ethiopian to Israeli society.
ACCORDING TO a new report by David Breakstone, deputy chairman of the agency’s executive and chairman of the new committee, the overwhelming majority of the 8,000 who remain live in “conditions of abject poverty, with mounting health and welfare needs” that are not being met.
Breakstone’s report notes that the agency, the Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry have all ended their direct engagement with the community in Ethiopia over the last several years, although the conference continues to provide some funding through a separate NGO.
The Falash Mura do not have the right to citizenship under the Law of Return, since their ancestors converted to Christianity – even though it was under duress. Instead, they are granted citizenship under the Law of Entry at the discretion of the interior minister, mostly for family reunification.
They are required to convert to Judaism upon entry into Israel.
Significant opposition to any further immigration of the Falash Mura has developed in certain circles, including the conservative wing of the National Religious community and elements in the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewish community, pointing out that those who remain are descendants of Jews on their father’s side, not their mother’s side, and therefore questioning their connection to Judaism.
These opponents also claim that further immigration will lead to a continuous cycle of family reunification claims from Ethiopians who are not Jewish and not connected to the Falash Mura community.
Activists counter, however, that the criteria for immigration, as set out by the government, will preclude any cycle of immigration claims, and have called for the community centers in Addis and Gondar to be closed once all remaining 8,000 claims have been processed and decided.
Breakstone’s report notes that although the approval of the 1,000 additional immigrants for 2018 was based on the traditional criteria for family reunification, the specific criteria for those 1,000 immigrants will lead to further division of Falash Mura families.
The criteria for the 1,000 immigrants permit only those with children in Israel to immigrate at this stage, and allow them to bring additional unmarried children with them, but deny the right to immigrate for married children and their offspring still in Ethiopia.
“The result, ironically, is that in the name of family reunification, families will again be separated, as parents will be forced to leave married children behind in order to be reunited with children in Israel that they haven’t seen for years,” the report observes.
The report also notes that “the vast majority” of the community in Addis and Gondar live in “a state of poverty that should be unimaginable in the 21st century,” and for the most part, members live in single-room mud huts of 12 square meters with dirt floors, shared by four to eight family members.
“They have no running water, gas or electricity, and share common latrines and fire pits for cooking with their neighbors,” the report states.
Most members of the community do not have regular work, working as day laborers and receive remittances from family members working in Israel to sustain themselves.
As a result, much of the community suffers from malnutrition, the report finds, and points to a comprehensive medical study carried out two years ago by 10 doctors, including the former head of the Shaare Zedek pediatric department. The study determined that, of the 850 children in the Gondar community aged 0-5, 462 were clinically and chronically severely malnourished, potentially leading to irreversible mental and physical damage.