Paz-Pines: Recheck Ethiopian aliya lists

Speaks at dicussion to shut down Falash Mura operation; activists: Names of many villagers are not included.

falash mura 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
falash mura 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
If the government wants to end its official operation to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the interior minister must conduct a comprehensive investigation into whether all those on its original aliya list have been processed, MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor), chairman of the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, said Wednesday. Paz-Pines spoke at a meeting of the committee called to discuss the recent withdrawal of the Interior Ministry representative in Gondar, Ethiopia, where most Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity more than a century ago) are currently awaiting permission to make aliya under a special clause in the Law of Entry. "It is time for this official operation [of aliya from Ethiopia] to come to an end, and those who still believe they are eligible for aliya in the future can apply for entry in the same manner as in any other country," he said at the meeting. "There will always be people wanting to come to Israel, and there will always be the transit camps [in Ethiopia]. The question we should be asking is whether we have fulfilled our original aims for this particular operation." The answer to that question was hotly disputed at the stormy meeting, which was also attended by Ya'akov Granot, the newly-appointed director of the population registry at the Interior Ministry, as well as some Ethiopian immigrant families whose relatives are still waiting to come here. Granot pointed out that this issue would be debated Sunday, when the Supreme Court finally hears a petition presented by a number of Ethiopian community groups on the fate of an additional 8,500 Falash Mura not recognized by the Israeli government. He said he planned to give the same response to the court as he was giving the committee: "We have completed the checks on all those people who appear on our initial list, and our official has returned to Israel. However, there will still be an office there to carry out any further background checks of individuals, if need be." According to the Interior Ministry, 17,500 people appeared on the original list, which is based on a 1999 census complied by then-Interior Ministry director-general David Efrati and Rabbi Menachem Waldman, an expert in the field of Falash Mura conversion. Of that initial figure, 14,620 people have already arrived in Israel, more than 20,000 have been checked by Interior Ministry officials and 1,150 are currently waiting to make aliya. Israel's official aliya operations in Ethiopia are expected to end within the next six months, ministry officials said. However, Waldman, who was present at the meeting, and Avraham Neguise, head of the coalition of Ethiopian organizations in Israel, both argued that the government had overlooked a large portion of the original list. The list, they explained, had been broken down into three sections: those based in Addis Ababa, those in Gondar and those from the villages. The names from the villages were not included in the Interior Ministry official figures, Waldman told the committee. He said the original figure, according to his comprehensive list - which includes those with either maternal or paternal Jewish lineage - was closer to 20,000. "The list of those from the villages seems to have fallen off the table," he argued. As the Interior Ministry officials present hit back with conflicting figures, Paz-Pines quipped that it was time for everyone to return to school and relearn arithmetic. "All we are asking is that the ministry be sure it has really checked everyone," said Neguise. "The proof that it has not is here in Israel, with many families divided up and the government refusing to bring those who have been left behind." MK Michael Eitan (Likud) said it was time to create one comprehensive list that would leave no one in doubt as to who had been checked, who had been approved or turned down and who had made aliya so far. If this were not done soon, he threatened, he would call for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate whether the operation was really over. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, an outspoken critic of the Falash Mura aliya, did not immediately respond to the committee's request.