Ethiopians rally for continuing aliya

Participants threaten to launch a hunger strike if quota is reduced.

ethiopian child298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ethiopian child298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ethiopian demonstrators were vowing to spend the night camped in front of the Prime Minister's Office and to launch a hunger strike Wednesday morning barring a last-minute change in the government's policy on Ethiopian aliya. The government's draft budget proposal, due to be approved by the cabinet after press time, included a cut in the number of Ethiopians brought to Israel each month, reducing the number to 150. Currently 300 come each month, despite a government decision in 2005 to raise the number to 600. An estimated 3,000 members of Israel's Ethiopian community spent Tuesday marching in the capital, pausing across from the Finance Ministry, Absorption Ministry and the Knesset before settling in at the Prime Minister's Office. Old men in suits and fedora hats, young boys in low-slung jeans and baseball caps, and mothers in cotton dresses with babies bundled on their backs held signs calling for "an end to suffering" and declaring that "Jewish children are dying in Ethiopia." The protesters sang Ethiopian songs, bore Israeli flags and chanted "Aliya now!" and then "End discrimination!" before breaking into simple shouts of "father," "mother," "brother" and "sister." Some 13,000 to 18,000 Falash Mura, or descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity under duress and have since returned to Judaism, are believed to be waiting to come to Israel. Most have family members already here. Among those waiting for a reunion is Shlomo (Mekiw) Adesu, 20, whose brother remains in Gondar. Adesu can't explain why his 28-year-old brother wasn't given permission to come to Israel when he and his parents made aliya in 2004, and now fears that his arrival will be indefinitely postponed. He said that the Ministry of Absorption had previously said that his brother would be coming in the next two months, but that when he called yesterday he was told the trip was off. "I'm angry," said Adesu, who is studying engineering and waiting to enter the army. "He's my brother. We grew up together and now have been apart for two years." His mother, he added, is taking it even worse. "She sits at home all the time," he said. "All the time she's crying." Adesu speaks strong Hebrew, but many of the demonstrators needed translation to Amharic when Nachman Shai, one of the few non-Ethiopians at the rally, made a rare appearance at a protest rally to address the crowd. Shai, director-general of the United Jewish Communities-Israel, denounced the government cut and stressed that American Jewry supported the protesters' efforts. "You are not alone," Shai told them. "With you are thousands of Jews from North America who support you, who are with you all the time." Organizers of Tuesday's rally said a representative from the Prime Minister's Office had been in contact with them during the day but hadn't provided them with any indication that the cut had been scrapped. Speaking before the budget vote, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisen said that her office wasn't making a decision "lightly," but that it was facing "very strong pressure from the Finance Ministry, from the financial point of view, to make the cut. She added that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "is not for that, but because it's part of the overall budget cutting strategy, it has to be seen in that broader view." In the past, Israeli government officials have said that it costs more money to absorb Ethiopians than other immigrants and that they take longer to integrate. Even if that is the case, demonstrator Yehezkel Stelzer rejected economic considerations as a factor in aliya. "Aliya is at the heart of what this country was created for," said Stelzer, who was born in South America and now serves as the chairman of the Atid Ehad (One Future) party, which promotes Ethiopian rights. "This is a crime against Zionism."