Get them out of Africa now
It is foolish to delay the integration of Falashmura into Israeli society when we have the capacity to absorb them now.
Our government has just decided to bring the remaining 2,200 Falashmura to Israel, and has approved opening a new absorption center near Sderot. This decision would seem to represent a great achievement for Ethiopian activist organizations such as South Wing to Zion and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, who have been fighting government efforts to lower the monthly quota of new Ethiopian immigrants for the past year from 250 to 110.
But the agreement approved by the cabinet last Sunday includes a March 2014 target date for completion of the Falashmura aliyah, which could drag out the final leg of this immigration saga for almost another two years, although most of the future olim are living in substandard conditions and some have been ready to immigrate for more than a decade.
No group of olim has ever been treated this way. The Finance Ministry is the culprit, complemented by the obstructionist approach of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. The latter has been claiming for months that it does not have enough beds for the new arrivals, while the Finance Ministry said it could not afford another absorption center.
Apparently, to underwrite the Zionist mission and bring about the ingathering of exiles - at least those without investment portfolios whom the current government perceives as less than desirable - we need the Jewish Federations of North America and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
After the failure of scare tactics based on unfounded cost estimates - activists were told a new center would cost some $30 million - significant pressure from the Prime Minister's Office and some legwork by the Jewish Agency led to the discovery of an affordable option at Ibim, an Agency youth village near Sderot. The village could be transformed into an absorption center for an additional 600 immigrants. The government decision itself revealed the total cost to be $4.4 million for the projected 30-month lifespan of the new center. In addition, 600 more beds were found in existing absorption centers.
The absorption and finance ministries then decided to make an expedited pace of absorption of Falashmura immigrants contingent upon the contributions of North American Jews and Christians. While the Jewish Agency and other benefactors routinely support immigrant absorption, and have shown tremendous generosity in this case, the two ministries appear to be milking North American donors to cover expenditures which they should cover themselves.
According to the government agreement, the Agency will cover approximately 74 percent of the costs of operating and providing services at the new absorption center. On the other hand, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which is charged with assisting and integrating new immigrants but has been dragging its feet with the Falashmura, is only committed to contributing NIS 1 million: less than 6 percent of the total costs.
If we tally up the beds - the approximately 600 that are currently available, plus the 900 expected to become available over the summer and the 600 at Ibim - we have a total of 2,100 beds, enough to house practically all of the remaining olim almost immediately. Once the finances were in place and all the beds counted, we might have expected a mini-airlift: Five 747s could get those 2,200 Ethiopian Jews here in a few hours.
But according to the agreement approved Sunday, their aliyah could drag out until March 2014. There is a guarantee to bring only 50 people per month - around 10 families or fewer - but at least the new bill does away with the quota on Ethiopian immigration, which was supposed to drop to 110, according to the government's plan.
It is absurd that a country which is a member of the OECD and has a robust economy, and whose raison d'etre is to unite the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland, is bargaining with activists and philanthropists over the number of beds it can find for new olim. Can we really not find the resources to accept 2,200 new Jewish residents?
The answer is a mix of the usual shortsightedness coupled with prejudice against this particular immigrant group. The Yisrael Beiteinu-controlled Absorption Ministry appears to have little interest in absorbing Ethiopians. The treasury simply does not want immigrants who place major strains on our social services and receive generous benefits but contribute little - at least initially - to our economy. Furthermore, despite the fact that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has declared that the Falashmura are indeed Jews and must be brought to Israel, their Jewishness remains suspect in some quarters.
The debate about whether to bring them to Israel should be behind us. To date, more than 90 percent of the Falashmura community have already arrived here. These 2,200 Ethiopian Jews have already been approved for aliyah, so they are clearly going to end up in Israel. But today, in Gondar, whole families are packed into single rented rooms, the bottom-feeders in an impoverished city. Every week these former villagers stay in these oppressive conditions, their emotional and physical health deteriorates further, worsening the challenges with which our social services and school system will have to contend when they finally arrive.
If our government was genuinely concerned with how costly it will be to integrate the Falashmura successfully, it would rush to get them here tomorrow. If our leaders had the slightest foresight or compassion, we would be organizing another Operation Solomon, and bring the last remnant of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel immediately.
It is inexcusable to make them wait longer when we have the capacity to absorb them now. It is foolish to delay their integration into Israeli society by another day, let alone another year.
Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports South Wing to Zion, NACOEJ and other NGOs which work to empower the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel.