The end of the official wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel may have a new deadline as of Sunday night. The Jewish Agency announced that the Prime Minister’s Office has given a green light to increased Ethiopian aliya to some 250 olim a month, up from a previous official pace of 110-170.
The first major waves of immigration brought 60,000 Beta Yisrael Ethiopian Jews to Israel. An additional 60,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopians of Jewish heritage who are obligated to convert under the auspices of the head Sephardi Rabbinate, have slowly been making aliya since 1991.
Today there are some 3,300 potential Ethiopian immigrants still living in Jewish Agency-run camps in Gondar. In November 2010, the Israeli government signed an agreement stating the official “special” aliya would end by March 2014.
The Jewish Agency was tasked to take over from the North American Conference of American Jewry, which it did in March 2011, and for the first time, a native Amharic speaker was put in charge of the day-to-day operations in Gondar.
At a rate of 250 per month, the aliya could potentially be completed in just over a year. This, however, is unlikely due to chronic overcrowding at absorption centers throughout Israel. Currently there are 1,000 beds available, which equates to four months’ aliya at the new rate.
In late 2011, an inter-ministerial committee, which was headed by former Finance Ministry director-general Haim Shani, proposed lowering the rate of new immigrants to 110 a month, which was greeted by public outcry, and introducing a set of serious grants and housing subsidies to entice those families who were longtime residents of absorption centers into leaving and purchasing their own properties. To the tune of several hundred thousand shekels per family, these grants could potentially even pay for entire apartments in outlying areas of the country.
The decision to raise the aliya pace was not taken lightly, and all sides had compelling arguments. One of the major influential factors pro-increase was the American Jewish community, which is invested both financially, some $5 million from New York alone, and on the moral grounds of bringing together separated families. The Treasury, however, is concerned the budget will not sustain both increased grants to those immigrants already here and an influx of new immigration.
The decision to increase aliya efforts was taken by the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday evening.
In an announcement released by the Jewish Agency, Chairman Natan Sharansky said, “The Jewish Agency is thrilled by this decision and will do everything in our power to bring this historic aliya to its completion as quickly as possible. We thank Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for his leadership on this issue.”