In a change of fortune, a Jewish teenager from Ethiopia participating in the International Bible Quiz in Israel was granted full Israeli citizenship, a week after he was reportedly asked to deposit thousands of shekels as a guarantee that he would leave Israel when the contest was over.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri gave Sintayehu Shafrao, 18, from Gondar in Ethiopia, an Israeli identity card in a small ceremony in his office on Monday and welcomed him as an Israeli citizen.
Shafrao, who reportedly has siblings living in Israel, reached the final stages of the annual Bible competition and will be representing Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent, known as Falashmura, in the event held as part of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations.
When news broke of the demands placed on the teen, Israeli Ethiopian activists took him to meet with several ministers and Knesset lawmakers, and he was photographed with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
The Interior Ministry regularly demands such deposits from Ethiopian Falashmura visiting Jewish relatives in Israel, Channel 10 news reported last Monday. That is despite a government decision to bring all 9,000 remaining Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel — a decision that is dependent on state funds being made available.
Last month, the Knesset passed the 2019 state budget with no allocation for Ethiopian immigration. The immigration and its funding are reportedly slated to be discussed at a future inter-ministerial meeting.
The Falashmura claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago and now seek to return to Judaism. The Interior Ministry accepts them as immigrants under the Law of Return, which is less restrictive than religious Jewish law.
In August, the government reiterated that it would bring 9,000 Falashmura to Israel by the end of 2020.
The Knesset in November 2015 had unanimously approved a plan to bring them over following a public campaign launched by the nation’s Ethiopian community and volunteer organizations. At the same time, it announced that it would be the last round of Ethiopian immigration. Many of those waiting to immigrate have family already in Israel. Some have been waiting for 20 years to come to Israel. The majority live in Gondar and in Addis Ababa.
About 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today. Some 22,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991.
JTA contributed this report.