Government weighs formation of committee to probe Ethiopian immigration delays

Government weighs formation of committee to probe Ethiopian immigration delays

Initiative pushed for by deputy minister Yevarkan as some 8,000 Ethiopians, separated from their families for over 20 years, wait in Ethiopia for Israel to allow them to immigrate

Ethiopian immigrants shortly after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, March 24, 2020. (Michael Dimenstein/ GPO)
Ethiopian immigrants shortly after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, March 24, 2020. (Michael Dimenstein/ GPO)

The government will establish an investigative committee to examine Ethiopian immigration, the Kan public broadcaster reported Friday.

According to the report, Deputy Public Security Minister Desta “Gadi” Yevarkan, himself an Ethiopian Jew, pushed for the establishment of the committee to decide who can emigrate to Israel and to take a look at immigration policy over the past decades.

About 8,000 Ethiopians remain waiting in Ethiopia for the Israeli government to allow them to immigrate. Many have been separated from their families in Israel for more than 20 years.

Most Ethiopian Jews in Israel are part of the Beta Israel community while many of those remaining belong to a group known pejoratively as the Falashmura, who had been pressured to convert to Christianity in the late 19th century.

Knesset member Gadi Yevarkan speaks during a special plenary session to discuss the country’s failure to properly absorb Ethiopian Jews, at the Knesset on July 15, 2019 (Noam Rivkin Fentonl/Flash90)

Some had come to Israel during the 1980s. But many others who had left their villages to emigrate to Israel in the 1990s became stranded in either Gondar or Addis Ababa as the Israeli government tightened its immigration criteria. Many of them live in impoverished conditions.

The Kan report did not specify whether the committee would also examine the problems of absorption and racism faced by the community.

More than 144,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent live in Israel, and community activists have long complained of institutional racism and violence at the hands of law enforcement.

In 2013, the Jewish Agency declared the end of Ethiopian aliyah, prompting protests by Ethiopian lawmakers and community members in Israel.

In 2015 it seemed like the problem was finally solved when Ethiopian-Israeli Knesset Member Avraham Negusie pressured the Netanyahu-led government into passing Resolution 716, which called for the immediate absorption of the remaining Ethiopian Jews.

But several months later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on his promise, claiming that the government did not have sufficient funds to implement the resolution.

Ethiopian Jews make matzah by hand in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia on March 21, 2018. (courtesy)

In the years since, a lack of funding has not prevented tens of thousands of immigrants from other countries to come to Israel, while only a trickle of Ethiopians have been let in.

In 2017 alone, close to 17,000 Jews were admitted from the former Soviet Union, while only 1,300 Ethiopians were allowed to immigrate.

“We know aliyah for Jews that are descendants in other countries happened so swiftly that sometimes even their dogs were also included as they moved to Israel. Are we less important than these dogs?” Meles Sidisto, the community head of Ethiopia’s Jews in Addis Ababa, asked then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked during a meeting in a synagogue in Addis Ababa in 2018.

“I don’t believe the Israeli government has a financial problem to immigrate the remaining Ethiopian Jews back to Israel,” Neggousa Zemene Alemu, head coordinator of the Ethiopian Jews in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar, said later that year. “I rather think it is a political move or racism.”

His comments came after the government decided in October 2018 that just 1,000 Ethiopian Jews would be permitted to move to Israel, which leaders of Ethiopia’s Jewish community said would leave many families divided.

In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)

Last February, immigration was finally resumed with the arrival of a group of 82 Ethiopian immigrants.

In May, a plane carrying 119 immigrants from Ethiopia landed in Israel and was greeted by Immigration Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first female Ethiopian-born minister in Israel’s history.

Between 1979 and 1990, Israel organized several transports of Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan. Hundreds, and by some estimates, thousands of people died on the trip from Ethiopia to the Sudanese camps from where they left to Israel.

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