Bar-On: Falash Mura aliya not a priority

Jewish Agency Chairman Bielski opposes delaying the pace of immigration.

aliya 298 nefesh benefes (photo credit: Nefesh Benefesh)
aliya 298 nefesh benefes
(photo credit: Nefesh Benefesh)
Bringing the remaining Falash Mura to Israel is not necessarily a priority and the delay of their immigration is not simply a matter of money, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. He made his comments following a meeting of the ministerial committee devoted to the subject, which decided not to increase the rate of immigration of Falash Mura from 300 to 600 a month despite the previous government's commitment to do so. Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski was opposed to delaying the pace of immigration, while Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim was "uncomfortable" with Tuesday's decision, according to sources in his ministry. Ethiopian activists and American Jews involved in raising money for the Falash Mura condemned the decision as racist and not based on financial reasons. Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson drafted a letter for the meeting expressing concerns about the cost of increasing the rate of absorption and asking that any decision be delayed until discussions start on the 2007 budget, which should begin in the next few months. "Bringing the Falash Mura at the pace that was set by the last government a year ago will take NIS 3.5 billion to 4 billion," Bar-On said in an interview at his Jerusalem office. "I don't know if I can say that, on our list of priorities, we can or should do this now." He added that, even if someone came up with the money to pay for them all come to Israel quickly, "I'm only moving the problem from there to here. Because even if I had all the money, I don't know if I can say that we're geared up to absorb this whole number." He placed the figure on the "closed list" of those due to come at 10,300, less than the 17,000-or-so estimated by Ethiopian activists. Bar-On said that, once the Falash Mura arrive, "they're stuck in absorption centers longer than they should be. This is just perpetuating a social status, which means they will never be part of Israeli society. They live in ghettos. They don't get out of these ghettos. That's not absorption." Trade Minister Eli Yishai and Science, Technology, Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines, the other two ministers present at the meeting, supported renewing the government commitment to increase the rate to 600, according to those familiar with what happened. After the meeting, Bielski wrote a letter to American Jewish leaders telling them of the committee's resolution, and his own comments that he felt "very strongly that the government's decision of 2005 doubling the rate of Falash Mura to 600 a month must be implemented." "I can't remember a time in Israel's history when aliya policy was decided by budget considerations. I find it even more puzzling that [this decision] would be made at a time after the government decided to cut the VAT... The government has the financial wherewithal to do right by Jews returning to Israel," said Steve Hoffman, who is president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and was the president of the United Jewish Communities when the UJC started to work on a campaign to raise $100 million for the Falash Mura. Hoffman called the NIS 3.5-to-4-billion estimate "overblown," while Israel-based immigration professionals also expressed surprise that money was cited as the reason for delaying the Falash Mura immigration rate, since they thought the funds had already been budgeted. A spokeswoman for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, however, said that only resources for the current rate of 300 per month were currently available. Hoffman attributed Israel's alleged disinterest in bringing the Falash Mura to race. "It's because they're from Africa. That what I believe. I hate to say it. I'm embarrassed to say it. But I don't have any other explanation," he said. Bar-On declined to comment on American Jewry's interest in helping the Falash Mura, saying, "Let's not drag these poor people into these battles." He stressed that the issue of whether the 10,300 remaining Falash Mura would come to Israel was "an argument that is already behind us." He continued, "They're coming at the rate that it's possible to bring them." Advocates of bringing the Falash Mura - Ethiopians who converted to Christianity but have since returned to Judaism - to Israel expressed disappointment and anger at the decision. "I was shocked when I heard that the ministerial committee didn't decide to implement the government decision to increase the number to 600. That decision was accepted a year and a half ago," said Avraham Neguise, head of South Wing to Zion, which pushes for the immediate immigration of the Falash Mura. "It's ridiculous. It's not acceptable. It shows how the government is discriminating against the Ethiopian Jewish community," he said, adding the French and North American immigrants were being encouraged to come. "The State of Israel has an obligation to bring all the Jews as they are, whether the Jews are white or black, rich or poor."