In Knesset, Ethiopian Israelis make emotional appeal for relatives left behind
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In Knesset, Ethiopian Israelis make emotional appeal for relatives left behind

Committee meeting on troops whose parents are barred from immigrating shifts gears when IDF forbids soldiers to attend

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Ethiopian Israelis appeal to government to allow their relatives to immigrate in the Knesset on November 29, 2016. Yahallem Tadessa is pictured on the second right (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)
Ethiopian Israelis appeal to government to allow their relatives to immigrate in the Knesset on November 29, 2016. Yahallem Tadessa is pictured on the second right (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)

‘You filled out the wrong form.” That was the brutal response an Immigration Authority official gave at a meeting in the Knesset on Tuesday, as an Ethiopian Israeli former soldier described how his father has been stuck in Addis Ababa for 18 years, bedridden due to a car accident six years ago and barred from immigrating to Israel.

Dozens of Ethiopian-Israelis gathered in the Knesset on Tuesday to appeal to the government to allow their relatives — children, a sister sick with cancer and her four children, ailing grandparents, a wife left behind — to immigrate to the Jewish state.

“His condition is not good,” Mano Mankanto, the former soldier who moved to Israel in 1998, said of his father. Dressed in a khaki jacket and white knitted skullcap, Mankanto told the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee he had appealed to the Interior Ministry on behalf of his father, to no avail.

Teddy Pakada, an official from the Immigration Authority — which works under the Interior Ministry — insisted that Israeli soldiers regardless of religion or citizenship may request their parents be granted permission to move to Israel, once they’ve completed one year of service. The parents, but no other relatives, are subsequently brought to Israel on a temporary visa, and may gradually become permanent residents and naturalized citizens, he said.

The father of Mano Mankanto has been waiting to immigrate to Israel for 18 years (Courtesy)
The father of Mano Mankanto has been waiting to immigrate to Israel for 18 years (Courtesy)

But Pakada told Mankanto that he had not issued a request as a soldier, but merely had lodged the general immigration request after his army service. “Did he turn to us on time? He didn’t,” said the official of Mankanto, referring to the period before he ended his military service. “We don’t know from the [general immigration] forms who is a soldier, who isn’t a soldier,” he added.

“It’s your job to ask,” Zionist Union MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin shot back furiously.

The committee meeting on Tuesday was scheduled to focus on Israeli soldiers whose parents were not allowed to immigrate from Ethiopia — but the military would not give the soldiers permission to attend. Instead, a number of discharged Ethiopian Israeli troops present at the meeting and numerous others told their stories — in both Hebrew and Amharic — and complained about bureaucratic hurdles and mixed messages from the Interior Ministry.

The officials present at the meeting maintained throughout that the Israeli government policy was not to split up spouses and parents and children during the immigration process, even as the Israelis present spoke about immediate relatives left behind.

Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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.

There are approximately 9,000 members of the Falashmura still living in Ethiopia who have not been allowed to immigrate to Israel because the Interior Ministry has determined they were not Jewish. Ethiopian Jews counter that the decades-old 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.

A government plan to bring the 9,000 Jews to Israel was approved in November 2015 but was not implemented because there was no budget for the program. Following protests, the Finance Ministry allocated a budget that enabled 1,300 Ethiopians to move to Israel over the next year. The first planeload carrying 63 immigrants arrived in October.

Ethiopian families are reunited on October 9, 2016 as the first group of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion airport since the government announced the "end" of Ethiopian aliyah in August 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ethiopian families are reunited on October 9, 2016 as the first group of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion airport since the government announced the “end” of Ethiopian aliyah in August 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

When Yahallem Tadessa immigrated to Israel, the single father, who says his wife was estranged, was not allowed to bring his two children — then aged 9 and 11 — with him.

The children were left with his parents, who ultimately immigrated to the Jewish state as well.

“I got to Israel. Every day I fill out forms,” the Orthodox Israeli told the Knesset panel. Tadessa was initially told by the Interior Ministry that his children would only be permitted to immigrate when they reached the age of 18.

So he waited.

But when both children came of age, the Interior Ministry cast doubt on his paternity, telling him they had no proof of the relationship between the three. Tadessa proceeded to go to the Tel HaShomer Medical Center for a paternity test, ultimately proving he was their biological father. The ministry then told him that because there was no government resolution to resume immigration for the Falashmura, the children — now 22 and 24 — must remain in Ethiopia.

He’s still waiting.

‘The list is closed’

The committee meeting gave a platform to over a dozen Israelis who described cases of sisters, parents, and even spouses and children left behind, while other relatives received immigration approval.

But the officials from the Interior Ministry and the Immigration Authority insisted the government policy was to keep spouses and children together.

“We don’t know and aren’t aware [of such cases],” an official from the Interior Ministry said. “Let them contact us and it will be checked.”

The representative said that many of the cases were “complicated.” She maintained there were cases in which married men passed themselves off as single until they arrived in Israel, at which point they filed immigration requests for their wives and children. These are “situations we are very familiar with,” she said. Both representatives would not go into specific detail when asked about the most recent arrivals, some of whom arrived without their immediate family members, citing privacy concerns.

Ethiopian Israelis in the Knesset on November 29 to urge government to allow their relatives to immigrate (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)
Ethiopian Israelis in the Knesset on November 29 to urge government to allow their relatives to immigrate (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)

Responding to a suggestion by Likud MK Abraham Neguise that the government may have issued immigration approvals in 2013 but failed to update the information since, Teddy Pakada of the Immigration Authority said the office receives the information from the government, computerizes it “and works with the computer.”

He maintained the line-up of 1,300 immigrants set to arrive in Israel over the next year has been sealed.

“The list is closed; we can’t breach it,” he said.

He also contended that all the forms were accessible online at at absorption centers and the directives were clear, earning catcalls and cries of “there is no explanation or anything,” and “it’s all lies” from hecklers.

“Our community does not use the internet,” responded Neguise, demanding the ministry make the guidelines more accessible and suggesting the directions be placed in Amharic and Hebrew ads on television and the radio, for example.

Likud MK Avraham Neguise, chairman of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. (Government Press Office)
Likud MK Avraham Neguise, chairman of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. (Government Press Office)

No soldiers at event

“It’s very sad” the army would not let soldiers with immediate family in Ethiopia attend, mused Neguise, the sole Ethiopian Israeli lawmaker in the Knesset, who ran the committee meeting.

Noting that some soldiers were nonetheless in the crowd, Neguise urged them not to testify, saying he didn’t want them to “get into trouble.”

An army representative present at the meeting said the military has no facts and figures on the number of soldiers with relatives in Ethiopia. “This issue is not under the responsibility of the IDF,” she said.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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