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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Budget cuts threaten immigration of Ethiopian converted Jews (Falash Mura)

The saga of Ethiopian Jews continues. The exact number of Falash Mura (Jews who had converted to Christianity and now wish to revert) is not known, and seems to keep growing. It is never clear how many of these people really had Jewish ancestry and how many simply decided it would be better to live in Israel and there are contradictory claims. Despite large investments in integration, Ethiopian Jews remain at the periphery of Israeli society in many ways. Previously, it had been announced last August that the Aliya of the Falash Mura was at an end, and that there were less than 2,000 Falash Mura left in Ethiopia, but now it appears that there is a much larger number. At least some members of the Ethipian Jewish community in Israel have called on the government to stop the immigration of Falah Mura, on the basis that they are not Jews, and continue practising the Christian religion even after Aliya, and that many of them come from non-Jewish families.

Cutbacks threaten Falash Mura aliya

Apr. 30, 2009

Representatives of Israel's Ethiopians and their supporters reacted angrily on Thursday to a section of the draft 2009 Economic Arrangements Bill that could completely halt the flow of the Falash Mura community to Israel because the program is too costly.

According to the bill, which was made public this week when Labor MK Shelly Yacimovitch posted it on her blog, the government intends to cancel a cabinet decision from September that promised to continue checking the eligibility for aliya of some 3,000 Falash Mura, who say that under a 2003 government directive they should be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

"This is a shocking proposal," said Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a member of the Public Council for Ethiopian Jews and an expert on Falash Mura conversion. "If this is passed then it will turn thousands of Ethiopian Jews against the government of Israel."

The Economic Arrangement Bill is expected to be reviewed next week when the Knesset reconvenes and, if approved, will be passed along with the 2009 state budget.

Waldman, who spent Pessah in Ethiopia and celebrated the Seder in Gondar, where thousands of Falash Mura are waiting for Israeli government approval to make aliya, said that reversing the cabinet's earlier decision would be "anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish."

"In Gondar, there were thousands of Jews celebrating the festival," he said. "The chief rabbi of Israel [Shlomo Amar] recognizes them as Jews and Jewish law is clear about their status, so how can a Jewish country turn their back on them like this?"

"Nothing proposed by this government surprises me," Kadima MK Shlomo Molla, currently the only lawmaker of Ethiopian descent, told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview from the US. "This is an anti-social government that continually makes decisions to strengthen the wealthy and weaken the poor."

"[Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] basically considers Ethiopian immigrants an economic burden on this country and this proposal is bordering on racist," he said.

Molla, who accompanied Waldman to Ethiopia earlier this month, added: "I will do everything I can to fight this decision and make sure that aliya from Ethiopia continues."

The proposal to reverse the decision to continue checking the eligibility of the Falash Mura - Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity under duress more than a century ago - follows years of controversy over their right of return. Many of those still waiting to immigrate have family members already living in Israel and just want to the chance to prove to the government that they fit its criteria.

The debate over the remaining Falash Mura stems from a 1999 consensus compiled by Waldman and then-Interior Ministry director-general David Efrati. According to that register, 17,500 Falash Mura were eligible for aliya. Since then, 16,000 have arrived in Israel and more than 20,000 have been checked by Interior Ministry officials.

However, there are at least 9,000-15,000 Falash Mura who claim they are eligible to make aliya and, over the past year, have demanded the government continue checking their applications.

The 2009 Economic Arrangements Bill also deals with the government's five-year social-economic plan aimed at improving the quality of life for Ethiopian immigrants already living here.

It calls for the plan to be funded by the various government ministries that are involved, and not financed separately by the Treasury as originally promised.

"We won't let this happen," said Avi Masfin, spokesman of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews.

"We won't let the Finance Ministry shirk its responsibility and we will file a petition to protect this plan in the High Court of Justice if necessary."

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