People and Numbers (Extract)

Disagreement over census data has transformed the Falas Mora into a punching bag swinging between Israel and the NGOs advocating on their behalf.

21fail (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract of a column in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. It has been 17 years since Operation Solomon brought over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in less than 36 hours in what was Israel's last major aliya operation from Ethiopia. Since the completion of Operation Solomon, the Israeli government acts as if it has fulfilled its mission and that bringing the remaining Jews to Israel is, at best, a mere favor to the Ethiopian Israelis already in Israel. A trickle of immigrants is still being brought in from among the several thousand still waiting there, but the government now says that it will bring in the remaining 1,500-2,000 over the next few months, and then close down operations in Ethiopia. The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry (IAEJ) condemns the government's decision to close the aliya operation: Never before has the State of Israel forbidden aliya from any other country or potential immigrant community. The situation is complex. As successful as Operation Solomon was in bringing Jews in almost complete secrecy, despite the civil war raging in Ethiopia, the operation has not yet completely fulfilled its mission. In the haste of Operation Solomon, one group of non-Jewish Ethiopians was mistakenly brought to Israel, some of whom exploited the situation in order to emigrate from Ethiopia to the West. Others were left behind, including thousands of Jews who lived in isolated villages, where they didn't hear of the secret rescue taking place in the shadow of the dangerous civil war, and a large number of Falas Mora, who are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in various periods in recent history. Estimates of the number of Jews and Falas Mora remaining in Ethiopia vary greatly, depending upon whom you ask. The discrepancies are not only a result of the growing population or the logistical difficulties in Ethiopia - they are also a direct result of the unreliability, inefficiency, and carelessness of both the Israeli government and the various organizations purporting to work on behalf of the stranded Jews and the Falas Mora. The Israeli government claims that 1,500 Jews remain in Ethiopia; an additional 800 still need to have their status determined and another 4,000 people have been denied entry. Yet, in its disregard for the Falas Mora, the Israeli government never even took a census of their numbers. On the other side of the spectrum, South Wing to Zion, an Israeli-based organization dedicated to bringing the Falas Mora to Israel, claims that there are currently at least 10,000 Ethiopians who are entitled to make aliya. South Wing to Zion's numbers are based on a 1999 report commissioned by an activist group and conducted by a former senior Israeli population registry official. The question of the right of the Falas Mora to come to Israel as Jews, under the Law of Return, has been debated in government forums several times. Back in 1993, a Cabinet Committee on the Remainder of Ethiopian Jewry, chaired by then-absorption minister Yair Tzaban, planned to bring Falas Mora to Israel on the basis of family reunification and humanitarian considerations, under the Law of Entry, and not under the Law of Return. (In contrast to the Law of Return, which carries substantial economic benefits to immigrants, the law of entry permits non-Jews to come to Israel based on humanitarian concerns, family reunification, and consideration of Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity under duress.) However, the government has continued to drag its feet to this day, leading to an increasingly complicated and muddled situation. Following the 1993 decision, numerous parties began to intervene, claiming that they represented the Falas Mora, among them South Wing to Zion; the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (commonly known as NACOEJ, a grass-roots non-profit organization founded in 1982 to help Jews survive in Ethiopia and aid in their absorption into Israeli society); and Rabbi Menachem Waldman, an activist on the Falas Mora issue, who maintains an institute for the conversion to Judaism of the Falas Mora in Israel. As the years go by, the thousands of would-be immigrants residing in the compounds in Gondar, some of whom are clearly entitled to come on aliya, have continued to suffer. Led by various organizations to believe that they may be entitled to come to Israel, they have come to these compounds with false hopes and remain in a constant state of limbo, trapped between the promises of the activist organizations and the refusal of the Israeli government to recognize their entitlement. Their fate currently depends on a combination of vague and insensitive legislation, Interior Ministry policies, and the strategies of those organizations ostensibly dedicated to working on behalf of the Falas Mora. Over the past year, the Falas Mora question has become more hotly debated than ever, especially since late in 2007, when Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit decided to recall to Israel the ministry's officials, charged with checking the immigration rights of the Ethiopians waiting in the Gondar compound - thus effectively putting an end to the possibility of Ethiopian immigration, for both Jews and Falas Mora alike. To the media and to organizations representing the Ethiopians and the community, Sheetrit has repeated, "If it were up to me, I would invest in developing the [Ethiopian] community in Israel, instead of bringing additional Ethiopians to Israel." Danny Admasu is executive director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry (IAEJ). Extract of a column in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.