The government is planning to bring to Israel 400 members of an Ethiopian community of Jewish descent, to reunite them with family members already living in the country, Channel 12 television news reported Wednesday.
Members of the Falash Mura community will be flown in before coming elections on March 2 and a “senior government” figure is likely to travel to Ethiopia to personally oversee the developments, a source familiar with the plan told the outlet.
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 who have been divided, due to either their parents or children already living in Israel, a key criteria for inclusion in the program.
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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to the report.
Others involved included the Interior Ministry, the Population and Immigration Authority and MK Gadi Yevarkan, an Ethiopian-Israeli lawmaker who recently jumped ship from the Blue and White party to Likud.
Final approval for the plan is expected to come soon from the Justice Ministry.
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’ Aliya said in a statement it welcomes the development, but urged “not being satisfied with a small, limited amount of immigrants.”
“It is absurd that immigrating 400 Jews from Ethiopia is a difficult and complicated procedure, while in Eastern Europe thousands of people immigrate every month without careful scrutiny,” the statement said.
The campaign noted that the government had already previously decided to bring 1,000 members of the Ethiopian Jewish community who have family in Israel to the country. So far only 600 have been brought, the statement said, “so in practice, this is just the continuation of an existing decision.”
The campaign also noted that a Netanyahu government in 2015 decided to bring all members of the Jewish community in Addis Ababa and Gondar from Ethiopia to Israel and urged the government to fulfill that decision.
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 of them 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.
2018 saw widespread, 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.
While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish and did not need to undergo conversion upon arriving in Israel, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.
In November 2019, a top state rabbinical body decided to reinforce the recognition of members of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community as Jewish, after an earlier decision on the matter failed to stop some officials from continuing to question their heritage.
The decision by the Chief Rabbinate Council came over 45 years after then-chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that members of the Beta Israel community were Jewish, in a groundbreaking decision that paved the way for tens of thousands to be airlifted to Israel.
However, some have continued to question or refuse to recognize members of the community as Jewish, sparking accusations of racism. In 2018, a kosher winery faced an angry backlash after it emerged that it was not allowing Ethiopian workers to touch the wine because of fears they were not Jewish, which would make the wine not kosher.
In November 2015, the government unanimously adopted a plan to bring all the remaining members of Ethiopia’a Jewish community to Israel by 2020. But the plan faltered within months, when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement it because the NIS 1 billion it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
In 2017, the Finance Ministry launched the first step of the plan, allocating funds for 1,300 to emigrate to Israel. All 1,300 arrived in the country just before the end of that year, on flights sponsored by the International Christian Embassy, as part of its program to support Jewish immigration to Israel.
The plan was thrown into doubt again in 2018 after the government passed the 2019 state budget with no allocation for Ethiopian immigration. The immigration and its funding reportedly is slated to be discussed at a future inter-ministerial meeting; no date has been set.