Last wave of Ethiopian aliya delayed, central funder angry

Inter-ministerial committee’s decision will stall completion of Falash Mura’s arrival in Israel by another year.

Falash Mura 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Falash Mura 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
One of the central funders of what last year was touted as the “historic final episode of aliya from Ethiopia” expressed great disappointment Tuesday over a new government policy that will slow down the pace of immigration from the North African nation and stall the process for an additional year.
“I am very disappointed by this new decision,” said Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which has contributed more than $2.5 million to the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)-led operation to facilitate the final phase of aliya for some 8,000 Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago.
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The new policy contradicts a decision announced exactly a year ago by the cabinet to bring the immigrants to Israel at a rate of 200 per month, ending organized aliya from Ethiopia by March 2014.
In contrast, an inter-ministerial committee, which was headed by former Finance Ministry director-general Haim Shani, has recommended to slow the rate to 110 per month, starting next week, and extending it until March 1, 2015.
The committee had originally been tasked with finding a solution to the housing problem facing hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants who can’t afford to leave the absorption centers where they live for the first few years after arriving here.
“[This] will allow us to keep up with the housing demands and other absorption services, such as education and welfare, in order to absorb them in the optimum way. It should be noted that the relevant government agencies should immediately implement these recommendations, ” wrote Shani in his conclusion.
Eckstein expressed concern over Shani’s recommendation.
“If this latest decision is carried out, then people who are suffering in camps in [the Northern Ethiopian town of] Gondar will have to stay there even longer and be exposed to all the illnesses and dangers that are there,” continued Eckstein, who also serves as chairman of JAFI’s Aliya and Absorption Commission.
“Some of the people have been waiting for up to 10 years to immigrate and it is not fair or right that they are being subjected to this,” he added.
“We have been caught off guard by this sudden decision.
Where did the right to change it suddenly come from?” asked Eckstein, who pointed out that as a donor he was willing to work with the government to speed up the process to avoid any more setbacks, but added that he had not even been approached.
Instead, donors such as the IFCJ learned only recently of the new decision to reduce the flow of immigrants to ease the socioeconomic burden as the state absorbs them.
In response, an official from the Prime Minister’s Office pointed out Tuesday night that under the government’s decision last year the Shani Commission had permission to extend the process for an additional year if a vital reason was shown.
Despite this, NGOs advocating for the Falash Mura aliya have pointed out that a less painful solution would be to simply open a few more absorption centers. They maintain that slowing down the flow of aliya will mean that up to 5,000 immigrants – all of whom hold valid final aliya approvals from the Interior Ministry – will not be able to immigrate for up to four years.
Speaking at a hearing of the Knesset’s Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Committee on Tuesday, former Supreme Court judge Meir Shamgar, president of the Public Committee for Ethiopian Jews, pointed out that the treasury has failed to see the root of the matter.
“This state was established for the in-gathering of the exiles and there has already been a government decision on the matter,” he said.
“These people have already been recognized as eligible for immigration, therefore it does not make sense that the process will take more than three years to bring them here.”
With this already controversial aliya facing yet another hurdle, JAFI’s Secretary-General Josh Schwarcz told the committee there was a serious concern that prolonging this aliya could affect the agency’s ability to raise funds for an additional year.
So far, JAFI has raised a total of $7.5m. from various international organizations based on the expectation that the whole operation will be over in three years.
Under the government’s decision last year, JAFI was invited to take over providing humanitarian aid and pre-aliya services, including learning Hebrew and health care, to those waiting in Gondar.