Falashmura Immigration Will Make Denying Palestinian Family Reunification Harder, AG Tells Ministers

In letter to ministers, attorney general says government plan to allow 1,000 Ethiopian non-Jews whose children are in Israel to immigrate will make it legally harder to defend denying other family reunification schemes

A protest demanding to bring the Falashmura to Israel, 2016.
Emil Salman

A government plan to approve the immigration of 1,000 Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel weakens the legal rationale for denying other “foreign” family reunifications in Israel, including those of Palestinians, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit warned ministers on Monday. 

On Sunday, the cabinet discussed a plan to allow Falashmura whose children are already in Israel to immigrate as well. Since these relatives are not Jewish, they have no automatic immigration right under Israeli law.

In his letter to the cabinet ministers, Mendelblit cautioned that the plan was liable to result in discrimination against non-Jewish descendants of Jews from countries other than Ethiopia, who under Israeli law aren’t entitled to migrate to Israel for family unification either. 

>> Netanyahu green-lights migration of 1,000 new Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel

“The more decisions made on the Ethiopian communities… the more the difference between their treatment and that of similar groups stands out, and the harder its legal justification becomes,” Mendelblit wrote. He explained that by similar groups, he means “non-Jewish descendants of Jews and non-Israelis who come to the country to unite with their families.”  

The attorney general suggested that the cabinet consider this a legal challenge, not a legal obstacle. 

Meanwhile, in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party warned about potentially impairing Israel’s Jewish character through what he called “excessively expanding the circle of relatives entitled to emigrate to Israel.”

The upshot was liable to be more and more demands to bring over increasingly distant relatives, Smotrich wrote – since "as soon as an immigrant arrives, his presence entitles his relatives to demand" their rights to immigrate to Israel. 

This practice won’t begin and end with the Falashmura, Smotrich wrote. "It will culminate in unending chains of relatives hailing from all over the world. How can the state justify distinguishing between Falashmura and other immigrants to the Supreme Court?"

The Law of Return gives Diaspora Jews and their non-Jewish family members the right to immigrate to Israel. The rights of non-Jewish spouses, children and grandchildren are enshrined in a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return. The legislation also applies to the children’s and grandchildren’s non-Jewish spouses – except for Jews who have voluntarily converted to another religion.

The Citizenship and Entry Law was first passed in 2003 and has been extended annually since. It is an emergency regulation that puts limits on granting Israeli citizenship or residency to Palestinian family members of Israeli citizens. The law also applies to citizens of Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq who seek status in Israel on the basis of family unification with Israeli citizens. 

The most recent government plan to bring Ethiopians to Israel is the latest step in implementing long­­-delayed cabinet decisions from 2015 and 2016. That’s when the government promised to bring the remaining Falashmura to Israel, but in fact has to date brought only 1,300 of about 9,000 people who are waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar. 

In November 2015 the cabinet decided to bring all the remaining Falashmura – descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity – to Israel within five years. But the government decision did not include a budget for its implementation. In February 2016 Eli Groner, the director general of the Prime Minister Minister’s Office, announced that the program was approved without a budgetary source and would therefore be delayed.

The freezing of the program led to a coalition crisis, after Likud MKs Avraham Nagosa and David Amsalem announced that they would not support the coalition during votes in the Knesset plenum. An interministerial committee was formed, which led to another cabinet decision in August 2016, when the government decided to bring 1,300 members of the community, within a year.

By the end of 2017, 326 requests of families had been approved, leading to the aliyah of 1,308 immigrants, 24 percent of them from Addis Ababa and 76 percent from Gondar.