The last planned flight of Ethiopian Jews immigrating to Israel was set to land at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday night, bringing 59 immigrants and just making the deadline to bring a total of 1,300 to Israel in 2017. But politicians and activists are worried about a funding holdup that could imperil the next group, slated to arrive 2018.
There are approximately 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia with close relatives in Israel who are waiting to emigrate.
In November 2015, the government announced it would bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration. The Finance Ministry allocated money for 1,300 Ethiopians to immigrate in 2017, the first step of a five-year program to bring new immigrants at a rate of approximately 100 per month.
But the process for immigration approval has been plagued by accusations of racism and inefficiency against the Interior Ministry, and there was a six-month delay in the flights, raising fears — that were unfounded in the end — that the 2017 target would not be met.
“This shows that when [the relevant state bodies] want to work, they’re able to work,” said MK Avraham Neguise (Likud), who has led the fight for Ethiopian family reunification. “The problem is they don’t want to bring this community. They could bring everyone at once if they wanted to, but they just don’t want to. That’s the problem.”
Neguise said he and other MKs involved in the fight, including MKs Eli Alaluf (Kulanu) and David Amsalem (Likud), began meeting with representatives from the Finance Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the Prime Minister’s Office four months ago to try to secure funding in an effort to keep the immigration process flowing smoothly, but they have been unsuccessful.
Neguise said the cabinet needs to approve NIS 200 million in funding to cover all of the absorption costs for 1,300 new Ethiopian immigrants.
Although Neguise is anxious about securing the funding, he says that once it is received there should not be any similar holdups, like the ones that delayed Ethiopian immigration for six months this past year. “The infrastructure is there,” he said. “The system and the workers are already there… this is an existing decision, they’re just waiting for instructions and permission from the government.”
“I call on the Finance Ministry and the Interior Ministry, they need to bring this to the cabinet for approval to continue the government’s decision,” said Neguise.
“They must hurry to unite our brothers with their families in land of Israel.”
Sabine Hadad, the spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Border Authority, the branch of the Interior Ministry dealing with Ethiopian immigration, said the Interior Ministry was awaiting instructions from the government and was not involved in determining budgets. A Finance Ministry spokesman said the issue is being studied.
The International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem has paid for all of the flights of Ethiopian immigrants in 2017 as part of its program to support Jewish immigration to Israel. In addition to the final 59 due to arrive Thursday night, 60 arrived the previous day. The organization hopes to continue its funding in 2018, said Howard Flower, the ICEJ aliyah director.
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. Critics fear that tens of thousands of Ethiopians could claim eligibility under this process.
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 first-degree relatives living in Israel, they say.
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 in Gondar, canceling a nutrition program for children and at one point even removing the town’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 NIS 1 billion it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.