Budget approval brings Jews in Ethiopia a step closer to Israel
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Budget approval brings Jews in Ethiopia a step closer to Israel

State's 2-year monetary plan earmarks funds for the immigration and resettling of 1,300 Ethiopian Jews

A member of the Falashmura Jewish Ethiopian community carries her baby on her back before attending the Passover prayer service, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia. April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A member of the Falashmura Jewish Ethiopian community carries her baby on her back before attending the Passover prayer service, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia. April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Activists campaigning to bring Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel inched closer to their goal during a 21-hour marathon budget approval last Friday, but they are waiting to see what will happen before breaking out the champagne.

In the 2017-2018 budget, the Finance Ministry allocated a budget that would enable 1,300 Ethiopians to move to Israel, to be divided among a number of entities, including the Interior Ministry, the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency, among others, according to MK David Amsalem (Likud) spokesman Nimrod Eliran Sabbah.

Immigration to Israel could resume as soon as November 2016, and continue at a rate of approximately 100 people per month. There are approximately 90 people in Ethiopia who were already approved by the Interior Ministry three years ago but did not come to Israel because there was no budget for their absorption, including housing allowances for at least two years in an absorption center and a NIS 400,000 grant to buy an apartment. That group of 90 people could begin arriving within the month, though it is unlikely.

There are approximately 9,000 Jews still living in Ethiopia who were not allowed to immigrate to Israel because the Interior Ministry determined they were not Jewish. Ethiopian Jews counter that the process to determine Jewish identity was poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80% of the Jews in Ethiopia have first-degree relatives living in Israel.

The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as Falashmura, a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Falashmura are not considered eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires at least one Jewish grandparent and disqualifies someone who has converted to another religion, even if the conversion happened a long time ago.

(video courtesy of Lior Sperandeo)

Ethiopian Jews still in Ethiopia can only move to Israel based on “ad hoc decisions by the Israeli government, made on a humanitarian basis,” said Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer.

Although the government unanimously approved the immigration of 9,000 Jews from Ethiopia last November, the decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.

Two Likud MKs, Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, refused to vote with the coalition until the government funded the decision to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, which it finally did in April. The Ethiopian Jews were supposed to start arriving in Israel in June, and celebrated Passover with renewed hope for “next year in Jerusalem.” But the process has been stalled, and no plans have been made to resume the aliyah. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to meet members of the Jewish community while he was in Ethiopia in July.

Knesset Member David Amsalem in the Knesset, on June 28, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Knesset Member David Amsalem in the Knesset, on June 28, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We will be uniting families, and that’s what makes us the happiest,” said Sabbah, the spokesman for Amsalem.

After the High Holidays in October, Interior Ministry officials will travel to Ethiopia to determine the order of the 1,300 people who will be included on the first round of aliyah, said Sabbah. Preference will likely be given to elderly people and unaccompanied minors whose parents are already in Israel.

He noted that the goal still remains to bring at least 6,500 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. “We came to a kind of compromise with the government, because we’d rather have the slow yes than the absolute no,” he said.

According to Sabbah, one of the hangups was trying to set criteria for who is eligible to move to Israel. Since the Law of Return criteria are not applicable, the agencies involved needed to agree on criteria that would be acceptable to the Interior Ministry, the Chief Rabbinate and the Absorption Ministry. All Jews who move to Israel from Ethiopia will undergo rabbinate-supervised conversion as part of their absorption process.

Young boys of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Young boys of the Falashmura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Sabbah said the agreed-upon criteria that will determine eligibility for Ethiopian aliyah are: having first-degree relatives in Israel, residing in the Jewish refugee camps in Gondar or Addis Ababa, and proving Jewish ancestry (which can also be patrilineal in this case). There is also a humanitarian emergency exception, for approximately 150 people who may not be Jewish but who are wholly dependent on people who will move to Israel, including elderly and infirm relatives.

Ethiopia is currently undergoing a deadly wave of anti-government protests in the Gondar and Oromia regions which have left almost 100 dead according to Amnesty International. In response, the government has at times shut down the internet in parts of the country.

Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch, youth leaders from Ethiopia’s Jewish community in Gondar who are currently in America on a speaking tour to try to raise awareness about Ethiopian aliyah said they haven’t been able to contact their families for over a week due to the internet shutdown.

Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch in a motorcycle taxi in Gondar, Ethiopia, in July, 2016, before heading to the United States for a five week speaking tour. (courtesy Ryan Porush)
Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch in a motorcycle taxi in Gondar, Ethiopia, in July, 2016, before heading to the United States for a five week speaking tour. (courtesy Ryan Porush)

Deboch said the decision was a step in the right direction. “But it’s only 1,300, and there are 9,000 Jews,” he said. “The second thing is — they decided, so why not start it today? Why even wait a week? We don’t want to see decisions, we want to see people making aliyah,” he said.

“Many times we’ve heard that they’ve said they’re bringing some people, 1,000 people this year, or something like that, but they’re just talking, they’re not doing anything,” he said. “And what is this 1,300? There are 9,000 Jews. Does this mean that my mom can go, but my sister can’t?”

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