The plight of the Falash Mura

Despite their conversion, they never assimiliated into the dominant Christian culture of Ethiopia.

falash mura 88 (photo credit: )
falash mura 88
(photo credit: )
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the cabinet last Sunday that red tape in Israel was holding up the implementation of an agreement reached with Ethiopia to bring 600 Falash Mura to Israel a month. Shalom said that the problems related to eligibility and budget issues. In essence, according to Shalom, the Jewish state is the one impeding the return of thousands of Jews to Judaism and their homeland. The Falash Mura are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th century. Their status under the Law of Return has been controversial since their discovery in 1993 following Operation Solomon. Contrary to some reports of forced conversions, it is likely that many of them willingly converted to be able to own land. They were never, however, assimilated into the dominant Christian culture and often maintained close ties with their Jewish brethren. Many Ethiopian Jews in Israel are related to Falash Mura languishing in Ethiopia. Since their discovery, the State of Israel has facilitated the arrival of 27,000. However, the government's attitude has been tempered by suspicion and repeated attempts to curtail their aliya. In 1998, then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed "the last planeload of Falash Mura," - an attempt to cap the number of Falash Mura immigrants. The next day, however, a representative of 7,000 more presented himself to Israeli authorities in Addis Ababa. During Shinui MK Avraham Poraz's tenure as interior minister in 2003-4, he impeded government decisions to bring Falash Mura to Israel because he considered them economic opportunists destined to be a burden on the state. In February 2005, Sharon approved a resolution increasing Falash Mura immigration from 300 to 600 per month, and a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopian government to this effect was signed in November. Now, it is the Interior Ministry which is dragging its feet. Officials there are preparing a list of all Falash Mura eligible for aliya, a list they say probably won't be complete until mid-summer 2006. If so, then by the end of 2007 only about half of the estimated 20,000 Falash Mura languishing in compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa will arrive here. This latest attempt to bring the Falash Mura is most likely more of an interim step than a permanent solution because this new list probably will not include all those remaining who qualify to immigrate. Last April, Uriel Heilman of The Jerusalem Post reported discovering more enclaves in the countryside - an indication that there may be more would-be returning Jews who need our help. While there are serious issues involved, it is unconscionable that Israel has been dragging its feet for so long. Israel absorbed over a million citizens of the former Soviet Union in a decade, yet 50,000-100,000 Falash Mura have proven to be one of the biggest absorption challenges of the last 15 years. What is more, we have been deficient in attending to the needs of those who have come here in previous years. Ethiopian children are regularly turned away from schools, and family housing is usually substandard and in the tougher neighborhoods of towns on the periphery, according to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. Moreover, the government only addresses the community's issues after they receive media coverage, it contends. Though the costs of absorption cannot be ignored, American Jewish federations have pledged $100 million over three years to bring and absorb the Falash Mura, which should ease any budget issues and free up money to aid earlier immigrants. We cannot leave thousands of people whom we define as Jews and who embrace Judaism languishing in disease-inducing compounds. In Judaism, those who convert to other religions are still considered Jews, as are their descendants. Israel's fundamental mission is to provide a safe haven for Jews. If that is so, why are we prolonging our brothers' suffering in a far-off land?