Falashmura and Israel

Along the topic of JoC, Ynet News reported on this item regarding the Falashmura and their right of return. As the Ynet article indicates,

According to a decision made by the government in 2003, all members of the Falashmura denomination who stand up to halachic criteria are permitted to make aliyah. This decision was backed by the head rabbis of Israel, who determined that these members should be brought to Israel in order to undergo conversion.

The Interior Ministry verified the eligibility of those interested and brought 15,000 immigrants to Israel over the past few years. Currently the ministry is refusing to check whether or not 8,700 more members of the Falashmura denomination could be added to the list, and these members await their fate in the camp built for them in Gundar by a Jewish-American organization.

To summarize, 8,700 of these people are still living in a refugee camp in limbo, awaiting their status in Israel or whether or not they are to return to Ethiopia, where it’s been alleged they face persecution.

It turns out, though, that it’s not so simple – as The International Middle East Media Center reports,

Proselytizing to Ethiopian Jews is a sensitive issue, as some Ethiopians claim that they were forced to convert to Christianity while in Ethiopia. Some Israelis have voiced concern that many of the Ethiopians who came to Israel in recent years claiming to be Jewish may in fact be Christian, thus adding to the tension.

Essentially, the Jewishness of the Falashmura is what is most in dispute, with many in the Ethopian Jewish community not wanting them in Israel in any capacity, claiming that they were persecuted and proselytized by the Falashmura back in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, as the Jewish Virtual Library article states, this is a problem without an easy solution, as it’s only gotten much worse over the years:

Finally, in 1997, all the organizations involved with the Falash Mura decided a solution needed to be found to empty the compounds so no more people would come. The government agreed to a one-time humanitarian gesture to bring to Israel everyone in Addis with some connection to the “seed of Israel.” Afterward, the camps were to be closed and future immigration was to be based on the criteria used for immigration from all other countries. The government agreed that would be allowed to come to Israel.

Israel decided the 4,000 Falash Mura then in the capital would be brought to Israel in groups rather than all at once. Though most did not enter under the Law of Return, they received all the benefits of immigrants who did. The only other people who were brought en masse to Israel in such a humanitarian gesture were refugees from Kosovo and the Vietnamese boat people. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the evacuation of the Falash Mura was complete. From that point on, the government said, Ethiopians would only be allowed to immigrate on the basis of the Law of Return.

The government’s humanitarian gesture stimulated more Falash Mura to come to Addis in expectation of similar treatment. After an initial estimate of fewer than 10,000 Falash Mura, the number soon ballooned to more than 30,000. As more arrived, conditions worsened, the embarrassment intensified and the activists called for additional humanitarian steps.

The problem, at least from the Israeli side, is that there is worry that many more hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will claim Jewish heritage if this becomes seen as a way for many to escape Addis Ababa and the situation in Ethiopia.

The other problem for many, is that the Israeli government had not lived up to its commitments to have incorporated the Falashmura community by the end of 2007, because they claimed not to have received permission from the Ethiopian government, while the NACOEJ claimed a request was never sent to the Ethiopian government on behalf of the Falashmura, leaving many of them still in limbo.

Those looking for some way to help expedite this process or donate money to facilitate the Falashmura can donate at the Operation Promise at the UJC website.

Personally, I feel, as I think many do, that their status as Jews is secondary to the humanitarian crisis that has developed – as Kosovars, Cambodians, and the Vietnamese have all been patriated into Israel as refugees in the past, I see no reason not to do the same here, at least to ease the suffering of those still stuck in the camps awaiting word of their future.

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