Literally at the last minute, the government kept its promise of bringing to Israel in 2017 a total of 1,300 Ethiopians with ties to the Jewish people.
Known as Falash Mura, these are people with Jewish roots whose forbearers converted to Coptic Christianity in the past 100 years or so due to economic or social duress. Under the Law of Return, converts from Judaism and their offspring are not eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship. But the plight of the Falash Mura waiting to come to Israel is complicated.
On one hand, it has been claimed by proponents of immigration that Israel did not – or perhaps could not – properly verify the Jewish identity of those asking to immigrate. In a single nuclear family, some children were allowed to immigrate and others were not. Some Israeli Ethiopians have siblings and parents who were left behind in Ethiopia, often for no apparent reason.
Further complicating the situation is the opposition within parts of the Jewish Ethiopian community to the immigration of additional Falash Mura to Israel. Many Falash Mura continue to adhere to Christianity even after immigrating to Israel and have no intention of converting to Judaism as is required of them. Some Falash Mura attempt to proselytize among the Jewish community in Israel.
What’s more, it is no easy matter to integrate thousands of emigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom lack the skills and education that would enable them to enter the labor market.
There are no easy answers to these difficult questions.
It is, however, the job of politicians to make tough decisions in an imperfect world, and the cabinet decided.
In November 2015, two years after a decision was made to halt Ethiopian immigration, the cabinet voted unanimously to bring some 9,000 Falash Mura to Israel by 2020.
But just three months later, the cabinet said while it stood behind its decision, no budget had been allocated to follow through. Under public pressure, the cabinet agreed to bring 1,300 Falash Mura to Israel in 2017. The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem stepped in and agreed to pay for the flights of Ethiopian immigrants, and the ICEJ hopes to continue that funding in 2018.
It is an embarrassment to Israel that the government has to rely on charity to implement its own policies regarding immigration. But while the government acted shoddily in failing to foot the bill for aliya, it cannot be accused of racism, as some campaigners for the Falash Mura have argued.
For instance, the Zionist Union’s MK Shelly Yacimovich said this week, “If the immigrants who waited in Gondar and Addis Ababa were blond, they would be accepted with open arms, as is the case with tens of thousands of white immigrants every year.”
In fact, it is a form of racism for Yacimovich to assume that simply because the Falash Mura happen to be black, it must be that delays in bringing them to Israel are the result of their skin color.
The Law of Return does not grant Falash Mura citizenship.
Nevertheless, the cabinet decided – despite opposition from many within the Israeli Ethiopian community – to bring 9,000 Ethiopians to Israel by 2020. The baseless claim that the government’s foot-dragging on the immigration of Falash Mura is motivated by racism serves as ammunition for Israel’s many detractors.
This is not to say the government should be excused for failing to plan for the next group of Falash Mura.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Jewish World Correspondent Tamara Zieve reported, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry have not yet advised the cabinet to issue a decision for Falash Mura immigration in 2018.
The government should honor its own decision dating back to 2015 and bring the Falash Mura to Israel. And it should find the budget to finance the project.
There are no easy solutions to the Falash Mura question. But politicians are appointed to make difficult decisions – and to follow through on them.