Court hears integration obstacles to Ethiopia aliya

Government seen as backtracking on commitments made in 2010.

Falash Mura 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Falash Mura 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Fears over the integration of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants now appears to be the latest obstacle to winding up what the government just over a year ago proudly touted as the “final phase” of mass aliya from the East African nation.
Concerns over absorption problems were expressed last week in a response by the State Attorney’s Office to a High Court petition submitted recently by the Public Council for Ethiopian Jews. The petition, which will receive a full court response in March, was an attempt by supporters of Ethiopian aliya to stop the government from breaking its previous promises and cutting back on the number of immigrants arriving here each month.
Even though it committed in November 2010 to bring some 7,846 Ethiopians of Jewish descent to Israel within the next three years, the government appears to have readily adopted recommendations made by former Finance Minister director General Haim Shani to reduce the flow of people from 200 per month to 110, and extend the program from three years to four.
Originally the treasury cited lack of space in Jewish Agency for Israel-run absorption centers and the housing crisis as reasons for slowing down the rate of aliya, but in its response to the High Court petition, the State Attorney’s Office admitted that housing was not the obstacle. Rather, it blamed the deeper problems of ongoing integration and absorption.
“As someone who has been actively involved in negotiating with the Prime Minister’s Office not to reduce the numbers, I can tell you that the only reason ever discussed to cut back on the aliya was the forecasted lack of space in absorption centers,” commented Joseph Feit, former president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a charity that previously ran the services for those waiting to immigrate.
Feit, who is among those who filed the High Court petition, added that by not keeping its previous commitment, the government is showing a lack of “Zionist, Jewish and humanitarian values unprecedented in Israel’s history.” He explained that by reducing the numbers, the government would now not be able to make good on its promise to end mass aliya from Ethiopia by March 2014, but will be forced to extend it by another year.
“By extending it the government is taking millions of dollars from US Jewry without even consulting them,” said Feit.
According to Feit, and estimates from the Jewish Agency, which now runs pre-aliya operations in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, roughly 4,200 Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago) will have official government approval for aliya by the end of next month.
However, because of the slow flow of immigration they will now have to stay longer than anticipated in Ethiopia before commencing their journey to Israel.
Conditions for those waiting in Gondar are harsh, mainly because their temporary prealiya status makes it impossible for them to find stable work, and until they are in the final stages of the immigration process, those waiting receive little financial support.
Following a visit to Gondar last month, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is one of the main funders of this final phase of aliya, decided to provide extra funds so that each approved family will receive food in the months leading up to their departure to Israel.
On Monday, Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post: “I have seen first-hand the harsh conditions and dangers to which the people there are exposed to on a daily basis. The Falash Mura, who were recognized by the Israeli government as eligible for aliya, should be treated like our own flesh and blood, yet they are living in inhumane conditions,” he said, emphasizing, “they are better off living in Israel, even with all the problems here, than in the conditions they face over there.”
Eckstein also pointed out that previous Israeli governments did all they could to save Jews in distress.
“This is what Zionism is all about. We call on the government to reverse this poor decision and to end this ongoing issue once and for all,” said Eckstein. “We will assist the government in any way we can with absorption efforts here in Israel.”
In response to an inquiry from the Post, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office explained that the government had decided that between 110 and 170 people would be allowed to make aliya per month.
However, he added: “Each year, the rate of aliya is determined in accordance with the number of places available in the absorption centers. A review is currently being conducted concerning the rate of aliya from March till August 2012, with an intention of increasing it, and in accordance with the number of available places.”
The Falash Mura were officially recognized in 2002 as part of the Jewish people by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and they make aliya under a special clause in the Law of Entry.
In order to be eligible for immigration, community members must be able to show a matrilineal connection to Judaism, have direct relatives already living in Israel and appear on a 1999 survey of Ethiopian Jewry conducted by former director general of the Interior Ministry, David Efrati.
The immigrants must also undergo a conversion to Judaism upon arrival in Israel.