Ministers on Sunday approved a plan to bring almost 400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a measure that will allow them to reunite with family members already living in the country.
While it was initially reported that Israel was planning to fly members of the Falash Mura community from Addis Ababa and Gondar to the Jewish state before the March 2 elections, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to commit to that date, saying the government was working hard to bring them as soon as possible.
The cabinet approved the measure, despite opposition over the timing from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who argued in a legal opinion that the measure could be interpreted as a campaign ploy directed at Ethiopian-Israelis just weeks before the election.
Mandelblit also criticized the lack of preparation that went into putting together the plan to bring the 398 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, saying that an insufficient amount of data had been provided regarding applicants interested in coming.
Likud is seeking to woo Ethiopian Jews ahead of March 2 elections. Many members of the community turned their backs on the ruling party in last year’s elections, following a series of high-profile incidents of police violence and amid ongoing concerns over government neglect and discrimination toward the community.
For his part, Netanyahu hailed the plan to airlift Falash Mura members, saying at the Sunday cabinet meeting, “I am proud that as prime minister I brought thousands of Ethiopian brothers and sisters to Israel. Of course we intend to continue doing so. This is just another step. We are also committed to the full integration of the community into Israeli society. We are constantly moving toward that goal and will continue to do so.”
The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. There are approximately 8,000 tribe members in Ethiopia with close relatives in Israel who are waiting to immigrate.
The planned mass immigration will include about 60 families that have been divided, with either parents or children already living in Israel, a key criterion for inclusion in the program, according to a Channel 12 report last month.
Funding for the plan is already available following an earlier government decision from 2018 to bring members of the Falash Mura to Israel, the report said.
Groundwork for the plan was done by Immigration and Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant, with behind-the-scenes efforts from Netanyahu, according to the report.
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.
The Campaign for Ethiopian Jews’ Aliyah said in a Sunday statement that the government’s decision was insufficient and neglected hundreds of Falash Mura members who will be forced to remain in Ethiopia.
The campaign also noted that Netanyahu’s government in 2015 had passed a decision to bring all members of the Jewish community in Addis Ababa and Gondar to Israel, urging the government to implement that decision.
The plan has been dogged by budget shortfalls amid mutual recriminations from various ministries over which should fund the immigration drive.
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz said in a tweet that he was “appalled to see how Netanyahu is carrying out a cynical election campaign on the backs of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia and their families here, whom he has neglected for a decade.”
The Ethiopian-Israeli community says the process for immigration approval is poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80 percent of the Falash Mura tribe members in Ethiopia say they have first-degree relatives living in Israel, and some have been waiting for 20 years to immigrate.
About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of nearly 9 million.
Some 22,000 were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. But their assimilation has not been smooth, with many arriving without a modern education and then falling into unemployment and poverty.
2019 saw widespread and sometimes violent protests by Ethiopians in Israel, after the police killing of an unarmed teen, the latest in series of incidents of racism and police brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis.
On Sunday, the cabinet also voted to create a special panel tasked with probing the police’s internal investigations unit, amid allegations that the unit does not properly prosecute police who abuse members of the Ethiopian community.
Mandelblit also opposed that measure, saying it could amount to “election bribery,” a crime under article 122 of the Elections Law, which prohibits offering direct benefits to individuals to influence their vote or to influence them to influence others.
The special committee that was given the green light on Sunday had been a key demand of former Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan, who jumped ship to Likud, just hours before the deadline for registering party slates on January 15.
While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.