Government to Approve Airlift of 8,000 Ethiopian Falashmura

Operation will end campaign to bring in Ethiopia's remaining Falashmura, whose opponents claim they should not be recognized as Jews.

The cabinet is expected to approve plans today to bring another 7,846 members of the Ethiopian Falashmura community to Israel over the next four years. Activists who support the rights of the Falashmura to immigrate to Israel have promised to end all lobbying activities on their behalf if the proposal is approved.

A demonstration at the Knesset in support of Falashmura immigration, October, 2010.Daniel Bar-On

Over the past decade, the cabinet has voted several times to bring to Israel the remaining members of the Falashmura in Ethiopia. But each time, it discovered that the transit camps in northern Ethiopia, where they were based, were being filled with Ethiopians who claimed to belong to the "Seed of Israel" and had relatives in Israel.

The rights of the Falashmura to immigrate to Israel has sparked controversy, with opponents arguing that members of this community are Christians whose link to Judaism either does not exist or is weak, and for this reason, it is impossible to estimate how many will eventually seek to immigrate to Israel.

Unlike Ethiopian Jews, the Falashmura are not being allowed into Israel under the Law of Return. Consequently, as part of their absorption process, they undergo conversion and become naturalized citizens.

During the past two years, the government has come under pressure to bring to Israel about 8,000 members of the group, who have been residing in transit camps for many years. Interior Minister Eli Yishai supported this initiative, but Jewish Agency and other government officials argue that permitting them entry into Israel would encourage others to seek immigrant status as members of the Falashmura.

Hence, those organizations and individuals active in promoting the immigration the Falashmura to Israel have submitted letters to the cabinet promising that if the decision passes today, they will refrain from any future lobbying activities on behalf of the group.

The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a group active in promoting the immigration of the Falashmura, has promised to end its activities in Ethiopia and transfer administration of the transit camps to the Jewish Agency.

Today's proposal stipulates three preconditions that must be met for the members of the Falashmura to immigrate: First, they must meet the criteria of Jewish ancestry through their maternal side and want to convert; second, they must be registered in community rosters prepared in 2007 for those awaiting immigration; and third, they must have relatives in Israel who have requested that they be allowed into the country.

The proposal stipulates that 200 members of the Falashmura will be brought into Israel each month in an operation that will span four years. Subsequently, barring specific humanitarian cases and special individual requests, no additional members of the community will be allowed into Israel.

Still, concerns have been expressed in various government circles about the new initiative. Dmitry Apartsev, director general of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, said he is opposed to allowing more Falashmura into Israel unless the necessary funding is provided for their absorption. He warned that there might not be sufficient housing to accommodate them.

Officials at the Social Affairs Ministry said that 70 percent of those expected to arrive are destined to become welfare cases.