The Israeli government has suspended the long-awaited and widely debated airlift and naturalization of more than 250 Ethiopian Jews scheduled for this month.
The government previously approved airlifting the would-be citizens on three flights before the end of the month. The first group of 50 immigrants — scheduled to arrive March 18 after a night flight from Ethiopia — are now in limbo, says former Knesset Member Avraham Neguise.
“They have given up everything,” Neguise told The Times of Israel. “The people sold all their belongings after they were told they would depart Tuesday, March 17. Then suddenly, they were told they were not going because there was no immigration from Ethiopia. The people called me from Gondar and informed me.”
Three Ethiopian Airlines flights were slated to carry the immigrants on March 18, 25 and 31, Neguise said. The number of immigrants approved for the March 18 flight was initially 80. After excluding anyone over the age of 60, reportedly due to concerns about the coronavirus, officials later reduced the number of people on the flight to 50. With this week’s cancellation, the immigration process is now indefinitely postponed, said Neguise, an Ethiopian-born former parliamentarian who served as chair of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committee from 2015 to 2019.
“The people have been told their flight is canceled and have not been told when they will fly,” says Neguise, who was involved with bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel during Operation Solomon in the early 1990s and has advocated for continued immigration ever since. “Their immigration was canceled for [an] unknown [number of] days by the Israeli government. We don’t know when it will be resumed.”
Neguise claims the Jewish Agency and Interior Ministry have continued immigration from other countries, albeit with a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals.
“Why has Ethiopian aliyah been singled out? If Israel has decided to stop immigration because of coronavirus, that is understandable,” Neguise says. “But aliyah [immigration] is open for every Jew to come. Why only with Ethiopians did they stop it?”
According to an email sent to The Times of Israel by an Aliyah and Absorption Ministry spokesperson, “a group of 50 olim [new immigrants] from Ethiopia was supposed to arrive in Israel this week.”
The spokesperson said that the ministry organized logistics for integration and isolation of the group in the north of Israel, but “after discussion with the Prime Minister’s Office, their aliyah was postponed in light of the recommendation of the Ministry of Health due to the coronavirus crisis.”
According to a March 16 tweet in Hebrew by Israeli political reporter Tal Shalev, officials reportedly called off the airlift earlier this week due to concerns about the pandemic. But on social media, observers suggest the sudden cancellation may have political implications.
ראש הממשלה החליט לדחות הגעה קבוצה של 50 עולים מבני הפלשמורה באתיופיה שהיתה אמורה לעלות השבוע בהמשך להחלטת הממשלה מלפני הבחירות. לקבוצה הוכנה קליטה מיוחדת בבידוד במתקן בצפון הארץ אבל הוחלט לדחות את העלייה לאור משבר הקורונה
— Tal Shalev (@talshalev1) March 16, 2020
Ethiopia reported its first coronavirus case on March 13, citing the arrival of a 48-year-old Japan national. Since then, the number has increased to three, with an additional 117 people who came in contact with the first case now under quarantine as of March 18.
Supporting immigration of this group of Ethiopians has become a flash point of debate. Their naturalization process has been plagued by budget shortfalls while various ministries have argued which departments should fund their immigration.
A Jewish Agency spokesperson told The Times of Israel, “Eligibility for aliyah from Ethiopia is determined by the Population and Immigration Authority in accordance with decisions made by the government of Israel, and is not determined by the Jewish Agency nor subject to the Law of Return. The Jewish Agency had made preparations to receive the new immigrants from Ethiopia into the quarantine conditions currently required of every new immigrant, however we were notified that the government decided to postpone their arrival.”
The prospective arrivals are first-degree relatives of Beta Israel members from Gondar and Addis Adaba already settled in Israel, Neguise says.
They are members of the Falash Mura community, Jewish Ethiopians whose ancestors generations ago converted to Christianity, often under social, financial or political pressures. Approximately 8,000 Ethiopians with close relatives in Israel are seeking to immigrate. The Interior Ministry does not consider them Jewish, so their immigration is excluded under the Law of Return.
Ahead of Israel’s March 2 elections 400 people were approved by the Jewish Agency and the Interior Ministry after a long battle to immigrate under family reunification laws. The immigration of 1,000 Ethiopian Jews before the end of 2019 was approved in October, 2018. Only 600 were brought, however, and on February 9 the government approved the decision to bring the remaining 400 applications backdated under that agreement.