ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Israel to review Ethiopia immigration policy amid increased fighting in country

Minister appoints former top army officer to oversee process and present his conclusions, having previously reportedly ruled out further rescue mission to Gondar

Ethiopian Jews scuffle with police during a protest urging the government to bring their family members to Israel due to fighting in Ethiopia, near the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ethiopian Jews scuffle with police during a protest urging the government to bring their family members to Israel due to fighting in Ethiopia, near the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israel will reexamine its policies regarding further immigration from Ethiopia amid increased fighting in the African nation, the Immigration and Absorption Ministry said Wednesday.

Minister Ofir Sofer appointed Brig. Gen. (Reserves) Harel Kanfo to oversee the review process and present his conclusions to the minister.

The move comes amid increased protests in Israel by the Ethiopian community and a day after Sofer reportedly said no further rescue mission was being planned out of Gondar, Ethiopia, for locals who say they have Jewish roots.

Last week, Israel extracted 204 individuals that the government said were either Israelis or eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return for Jews and their relatives.

According to the Ynet news site, Sofer’s comments were made in a meeting with activists working to increase immigration quotas from Ethiopia following their protest rally on Sunday in Jerusalem, in which hundreds of Israelis of Ethiopian descent demanded that more people be let into Israel from the African country in light of fighting between rival factions in its northern provinces.

“Today proves that we are not brethren,” the Struggle to Bring the Jews of Ethiopia, an unofficial alliance of activists, said in a statement following the meeting. “Those who airlifted 200 Israelis out of Ethiopia while leaving thousands in Gondar, at the center of the inferno of war, are directly responsible for their fates.”

Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer speaks during a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, January 5, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Ethiopia is home to thousands of people who say they have Jewish roots but are not eligible to immigrate under that law. That group, known as Falash Mura, is descended from Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity under duress in the 19th century.

The Falash Mura stayed behind in Ethiopia as Israel extracted in the 1980s and 1990s what is widely seen as the main and oldest Jewish presence in Ethiopia, known as Beta Israel. In 1992, Beta Israel Ethiopians living in Israel began lobbying for their Falash Mura relatives who had stayed behind to be allowed to immigrate.

In a statement about Sofer’s meeting, his office sidestepped the issue by referring only to immigration under the Law of Return.

“Any further claim of eligibility to make aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return will be thoroughly checked and handled,” his office says. Sofer heard the issues raised by the activists for Falash Mura immigration “and replied that the subject is being examined seriously and will be treated in an orderly fashion,” the statement added.

The battle to bring over those members of the community remaining in Gondar has been ongoing for years, with subsequent governments repeatedly promising and at times backtracking on plans to “complete” the mission.

Many in the current far right-religious coalition have sought to limit immigration to Israel of those who are not considered Jewish under halacha, although recent waves of Ethiopian immigrants are all required to undergo conversion following their arrival.

Lazar Berman and AP contributed to this report.

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