falashmura - Reuters - November 19 2010
A Falashmura woman at a July rally outside the PM’s Office. Photo by Reuters
Text size

April 2008. A windswept, lonely airfield. The Jewish Agency is shutting down its operation in Ethiopia and planning to end the organized emigration of the Falashmura to Israel, as decided by the cabinet. An old Ethiopian man is standing by the runway. "Don't worry," he says, "the government will change its mind. We will bring thousands more."

April 2009. Another desert airfield. A veteran air force officer is discussing comments made by a senior official in the Defense Ministry warning that the IDF would not receive the 75 advanced fighter plane it was demanding. "Don't worry," he promises, "we will have entire squadrons of F-35s."

This week we learned that Israel is intending to bring a further 8,000 Falashmura and the IDF will receive another 20 F-35s as part of the agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Obama administration over the second settlement freeze. And that's just two months after signing an order for the first batch of 20.

A light year divides the filth of the Gondar compound where the Falashmura have been waiting for years in Ethiopia and the shining squadron buildings of Israel Air Force bases, but the decision-making process is identical.

The prime minister or defense minister issues a proclamation and the Israeli media responds with glowing feature stories. What editor could ask for better pictures: A glorious fighter jet rockets through the clouds and a doe-eyed girl waits for a mother she has not seen for five years, to hold her in her arms. What is there to discuss?

Worthy decisions? Perhaps, but somewhere along the way, the voices of senior officials and experts, convinced that in both cases short-term, populist and wasteful policies were allowed to prevail, seemed to fade.

In the West, immigration policy and military spending are matters for serious public debate.

In the United States, many of the election campaigns revolve around the question of legalizing Mexican immigrants, Europe is torn over the future of the multicultural society and in Israel, a decision that reverses government policy to concentrate efforts and budgets on attracting new immigrants from the West and closing socioeconomic gaps in the country's current population is overturned without a murmur.

So what if an entire cadre of Jewish Agency emissaries and Foreign Ministry diplomats with decades of Ethiopian experience say that the Falashmura have no right to Israeli citizenship, and that by allowing a further 8,000 in we will not be ending the saga, but merely attracting many thousands more? The cynical lobbyists and machers with a financial and political interest in bringing more and more of them will always be more influential and adept at selling their story to the media.

In Canada, the question of whether to purchase the F-35 is one of the main issues dividing the parties in the upcoming elections. The British government decided to slash its planned order for the plane by two-thirds, following a comprehensive revision of defense spending policy.

Even in the United States, which is building the plane, there is a serious lobby against continuing its funding and development. There are even some defense experts who dare to raise the question whether the age of the manned $100 million fighter jet is over.

But in Israel, the roar of jet engines drowns out all debate. It certainly has deafened us to the warnings of generals and heads of the local defense industry who say that the implication of buying the "stealth" jet is that the IDF's future will be based on a platform designed to carry out a one-off mission.

A mission that probably will not be relevant five years from now, when the planes are actually delivered, and a diversion of resources and attention from much more immediate threats.

This is not just about the faulty decision-making process endemic to the Israeli way of doing things; it is about how national myths are perpetuated by an infantile media and then elevated to the level of alternative religions.

Defense and aliyah are quite naturally bulwarks of Israel's national ethos and its core identity, but it's hard to believe that we still regard them almost uncritically.

The sometimes romantic and often opportunistic quest for the remnants of the fabled Lost Ten Tribes is ruining any serious initiative to come up with a concrete and updated definition of Israeli identity and citizenship, which is a prerequisite for formulating any serious policy of immigration and integration.

Our hero-worship of senior officers and especially of the invincibility of our fighter pilots has led to so many real tragedies, leading back to the Yom Kippur War and recently the Second Lebanon War, the inability to comprehend that "the most moral army in the world" could have also committed some crimes during Operation Cast Lead and the gross miscalculation of the Gaza Flotilla seizure.

Israelis like to see themselves as cosmopolitan and sophisticated, a high-tech democratic society with the highest levels of education and innovation in the world. But if it is all that, then why, when it comes to any sort of serious national policy, are not only the politicians but also the public and the media so damn childish?