Jerusalem and Babylon / It's all about money
Two groups of about 30 people each shuffled into the small absorption lounge in Ben-Gurion Airport's old Terminal One three weeks ago. Rubbing the sleep from their eyes - they had just landed after night flights - parents and children sat by the round tables. Mothers went off to change diapers and fathers were called in to the little booths to take care of the paperwork that would officially make them Israelis. But the difference between the two groups could not have been greater - and the color of their skin was the least of the reasons for this.
The group of Ethiopians peered around in wonder, still recovering from the excitement of the first airplane flight of their lives. They were absorbing, for the first time, new things such as the computers and printers that were issuing their new identity documents, the first they had ever had. And Absorption Ministry officials were making sure they understood how to use the toilets.
The second group, which had just arrived from Britain, was totally at ease. Almost all of its members had visited Israel more than once in the past, and they were prepared for their first meeting with Israeli bureaucracy. Formalities over, they left the absorption lounge to join the 1,000-strong celebration just kicking off downstairs in the large hall, along with another 220 new immigrants who had just arrived on a special charter from New York. The Americans and Brits, now Israelis, had all come with the assistance of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the private organization dedicated to assisting the immigration and absorption of Jews from North America and Britain. Filing out of the lounge, they waved and smiled at the Ethiopians and wished them good luck.
They had all arrived in the country at the same time, but already, a huge gap had opened between these two groups of new Israelis. The immigrants from the West all knew where new homes awaited them and which schools their children would attend at the end of summer vacation. And many had a good idea of their future careers. They were already feeling at home.
But for the Ethiopian immigrants, this was just the beginning of a long journey into the unknown - into years, probably decades, of dislocation and a struggle for acceptance as a group close to the bottom of the social ladder. While a delegation of VIPs waited to greet the Westerners at the lavish reception organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh, including the director general of the Absorption Ministry, none of them thought to pop upstairs and have a word with the Ethiopians, one of the last groups of Falashmura to be allowed in the country. There could have been no more poignant picture of the changing nature of immigration.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision last week to end the immigration of the Falashmura, thereby effectively ending mass immigration from Ethiopia, is probably not the last word. The coalition of Israeli and American organizations lobbying the government to allow more Falashmura into the country has proved successful in the past at overturning similar decisions. And now that Olmert is finally on his way out, they have a stake in the Kadima primary.
While front-runner Tzipi Livni was resolutely against bringing more Falashmura, both as absorption minister and in her current role as foreign minister, her main rival, Shaul Mofaz, is known to be a warm supporter of the cause. He took a close and personal interest in the careers of Ethiopian soldiers as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and defense minister, and maintains contact with at least one of them even now. So do not be surprised if you see many Ethiopian faces at his campaign rallies.
But whether or not the next government is more amenable to the cause, the trend is inexorable. There are no more poor Jews waiting somewhere in the world for Israel to gather them in. The only endangered community left is the 20,000 Jews of Iran, who for some reason are not eager to leave, even though most of them can. Jews are essentially Western, urban, upper-middle-class creatures, and this goes also for most of the Jews remaining in the former Soviet Union. So it is their choice whether or not to come to Zion - a choice that will be made not only on ideological grounds but also on financial ones.
The entire absorption infrastructure is already at an advanced stage of regearing itself solely toward affluent immigrants from the West. The Jewish Agency is closing down almost all of its absorption centers, since Westerners prefer to go directly from the plane to permanent homes. And instead of various benefits and grants, new immigrants are going to be offered tax breaks and exemptions that will allow them live here and continue running their businesses abroad.
The pro-Falashmura lobby might succeed in forcing the government to allow a few thousand more in, but essentially, their battle is over. The most telling quote from last week's meeting was Olmert's, who said: "We should use the money to improve the absorption of the Ethiopians who are already here, instead of bringing new ones." Not a word about whether or not the Falashmura still waiting in Gondar are eligible for citizenship. It is all about money.
The calculation is simple. The Ethiopians might be hard-working citizens and good soldiers, as their supporters claim, but they are a drain on the economy. The Westerners, in contrast, bring on average $100,000 each into the country, in capital and business. These are the Jews Israel is after in the 21st century.