Ethiopian Jews languishing in Ethiopia and their families in Israel demanded answers on Tuesday as to why a government decision approving 1,300 people for immigration to Israel has yet to be implemented.
Knesset members Eli Alaluf (Kulanu), David Amsalem (Likud), and Avraham Neguise (Likud) excoriated representatives of the Interior Ministry, accusing them of setting deliberate obstacles to scuttle Ethiopian aliyah.
In August 2016, after almost a year of negotiations, the Finance Ministry agreed to allocate money to allow 1,300 Ethiopians to move to Israel. This is the first step of a government-approved plan to bring approximately 6,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over a five-year period at the rate of about 100 per month. After the five-year period there will need to be an additional plan for the remaining Jewish community of about 3,000.
Although a celebratory flight landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport in October with 63 Ethiopians who had already received their approval to immigrate, no planes have arrived since then and not a single person has even been approved by Israeli authorities to immigrate.
The Interior Ministry claimed it was having logistical problems finding offices for representatives in Gondar, where some 9,000 Falashmura Jews are waiting and hoping to emigrate, and only sent three workers on February 26, days before a mission of MKs left for Ethiopia for a fact-finding mission.
“You’re acting like you’re filling up a truck with potatoes, not with people who are dying because of lack of medical care,” Amsalem told Amos Arbel, the director of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority branch for determining which people are approved to immigrate to Israel.
Gashaw Abinet, one of the cantors at the synagogue in Gondar, said the Jews of his city and in Addis Ababa live in poverty, after they left their villages 15 to 20 years ago in order to register with Israeli officials and wait their turn to move to Israel. Because they have been in limbo for years, always assuming they would be leaving for Israel shortly, they often did not invest in businesses or real estate, plunging them further into poverty as the years passed. In Gondar, 6,000 Jews live in rented mud shacks, most without electricity or running water. An additional 3,000 Jews live in Addis Ababa, spread out among the poorer suburbs because they can no longer afford to live near the synagogue in the center of the city.
Members of the Jewish community are also poorer than the average Ethiopian. In 2011, researchers found that 41% of the Jewish children in Gondar were malnourished, and in the 12- to 23-month age range, 67% were malnourished. The average urban malnutrition rate in Ethiopia is 30%.
“We are going through nightmares in Gondar,” said Abinet by phone last week. “We want the Israeli government to help us. Why are you doing this? There’s already been a government decision to bring 9,000 Jews.”
The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as Falashmura, a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago.
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falashmura 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 community counters that the process to determine their Jewishness was poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families.At least 80 percent of the Jews in Ethiopia have close relatives living in Israel.
In August 2013, the government announced the “end” of Ethiopian aliyah, claiming that all Ethiopian Jews were now in Israel. Since that time, the Jewish Agency withdrew its funding from the community synagogue, canceling a nutrition program for children and at one point even removing the community’s Torah scroll.
Although the government unanimously approved the immigration of all the remaining Jews from Ethiopia in November 2015, the decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
But even with the money now in place, the immigration process has stalled, with community members accusing the state of bogging down their efforts with red tape.
Abinet said the Interior Ministry is requiring more documents than in previous years, including a residency card for Gondar. However, as most of the community is made up of refugees who fled discrimination in rural villages in 1990s in the hopes of moving to Israel, they do not have official documentation from Ethiopian authorities.
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration, and Border Authority, the branch that approves applications for immigration, said the ministry has always required these documents.
Abinet also said the Interior Ministry’s actions will separate families, a mistake he was hoping the Israeli government had learned not to repeat.
For example, Abinet’s mother was approved for immigration years ago, but in the intervening years, his older brother died and Abinet’s mother became the primary caretaker for her grandchildren.
However, because the grandchildren were not registered along with their grandmother, Abinet’s mother could be forced to leave her grandchildren behind if she wants to move to Israel, where she has other relatives.
“We made such a big struggle to keep families together,” said Abinet, speaking in Hebrew. “If the Interior Ministry will separate parents from their kids again, then I will have no hope. I am trying to keep my hope and continue fighting.”
The Interior Ministry claimed it has interviewed 120 heads of family, representing about 500 people, in the past three weeks, though no one has received approval for immigration due to “problems with internet and communication.” Arbel said the ministry hopes to start giving approvals starting next week, though arranging flights will take additional time.
A major issue, according to the Interior Ministry, is that it does not have adequate office space in Gondar to carry out the interviews and medical examinations.
A representative from the Foreign Ministry said the Israeli Embassy is building office space for this process but the buildings are still under construction, and it offered a private apartment as a temporary solution until the buildings are completed, but the Interior Ministry has not used the apartment.
“There are so many excuses that it is so hard to believe how people are coming up with these excuses,” said Alaluf, who was on the fact-finding mission to Ethiopia two weeks ago. “I was disgusted by the behavior of the Interior Ministry.”
Alaluf said he was shocked by the living conditions for Jews in Ethiopia, where many are forced to share rented mud buildings with entire families crammed into a single room.
“I cannot stand by while Jews are in this situation anywhere in the world,” he said.
Abinet said the Interior Ministry is now calling people to come for immigration interviews, despite the fact that many people cannot afford phones. Until 2013, the ministry had announced interviews in the synagogue, but Neguise said the ministry had stopped that practice for ideological religious reasons.
“You aren’t using the synagogue because you don’t want to recognize that they have a synagogue,” said Neguise, who was born in Ethiopia and chairs the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committee.
Arbel defended the three Interior Ministry workers currently in Gondar and said they would continue “doing professional work to implement the government decision.”
He added that the ministry would continue the practice of phoning people to inform them of interview times, regardless of the obstacles.
Amsalem and Neguise said they are planning an additional session on the issue immediately after Passover, even though the Knesset will be on recess.
Ethiopian-Israeli activists and family members who attended the Knesset session condemned the government’s inaction and its refusal to provide information.
“I don’t know what to do, my sister is sick, and you don’t give us any answer about when I can bring her,” said Dinkitu Tarkgen. “You tell me to call a number [at the Interior Ministry] and there’s no answer. I just want to know when I can see her.”
Yahallem Tadesa has been waiting for 16 years to bring his two oldest children, who were separated from the family in the refugee camp. He said he was forced to do a blood test to prove they are his children, which he completed two years ago. “I think of them every day,” said Tadesa. “I think of them and I cry every day.”