Netanyahu pushes plan to airlift 2,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel

Announcement of NIS 370 million project comes days after video surfaces of prominent anti-government protest leader making race-tinged remark to cop from Ethiopian community

An Ethiopian worshiper at the synagogue in Addis Ababa praying and holding photos of family members living in Israel. (Bernard Dichek/ Times of Israel)
An Ethiopian worshiper at the synagogue in Addis Ababa praying and holding photos of family members living in Israel. (Bernard Dichek/ Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said the cabinet will vote next week on a plan to airlift 2,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

The proposal, which will be raised on Monday, earmarks NIS 370 million ($109 million) for the mass immigration, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

“Half a year ago, I committed to bringing the rest of the Jews of Ethiopia [to Israel],” Netanyahu said in a statement from his office. Monday’s cabinet vote is a steppingstone “on the way to bringing the rest,” he added. “We have also funded NIS 80 million for the community’s activities. We stand by our commitments.”

The announcement came days after a prominent anti-Netanyahu protester was heard on a video making a racially charged remark to a police officer of Ethiopian descent.

Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan of Likud, who is Ethiopian-Israeli, thanked the prime minister for the plan, while taking aim at Amir Haskel, the leader of the Ein Matzav protest group.

Knesset member Gadi Yevarkan 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)

“Despite the racist calls we’re hearing, here is the answer. The best response is the continued immigration of Ethiopian Jewry, and certainly not to patronize them and tell them to thank everyone who had some sort of… [marginal] role in their immigration,” Yevarkan said.

Haskel faced criticism after a video surfaced on Tuesday of him being arrested outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in August, telling a policewoman of Ethiopian origin, “I brought your parents here from Ethiopia, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Israel’s first-ever cabinet member of Ethiopian descent, Immigration Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, has been pressing the government to rescue as many people from the Jewish community as possible in light of reports that up to 14,000 Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel are facing a coronavirus-related humanitarian disaster.

Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata welcomes new immigrants to Israel on August 3, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)

The government policy on the immigration of Ethiopian Jews in recent years has been rife with abandoned pledges.

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

In November 2015, the government passed a decision to airlift “the last of the community” waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar to Israel within five years.

Since that decision, however, just 2,257 Ethiopians have been brought, in dribs and drabs, according to Jewish Agency figures.

Severe malnutrition is rampant in the community, and while there are no reported cases of COVID-19 among them yet, the disease is spreading rapidly in Ethiopia, with more than 80,000 cases, and 1,255 deaths.

Members of the Falash Mura community reunite with their families at the Ben Gurion airport, outside Tel Aviv on February 4, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On August 19, Tamano-Shata, of the Blue and White party, presented an NIS 1.3 billion ($382.6 million) outline to the Knesset Immigration Committee to bring 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel and to close the camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa for good.

She announced last month that the government would airlift 2,000 Ethiopian Jews, drawing mixed reactions from activists campaigning for all to be allowed to move to Israel.

About 9,000 of the would-be immigrants have been waiting for 15 or more years to immigrate, local activists say. About a quarter of that number, located in the capital Addis Ababa, have been waiting for more than 20 years, they say, while the rest, in Gondar city, have been hanging on for 15 to 20 years.

Members of the Falashmura community arrive at the Immigration offices at the Ben Gurion Airport on February 4, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The coronavirus has hit the group very hard economically, The Times of Israel has been told by several sources. Work has dried up and food is in short supply, with prices up by 35 to 50 to percent; families in Israel who previously sent their relatives money are strapped for cash because of their own COVID-19 related problems, and philanthropic organizations are less able to raise donations due to the pandemic.

About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of nearly 9 million. Some 22,000 were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, mostly from the Beta Israel community.

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating. The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to Netanyahu’s office.

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.

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