The state will bring 500 of the estimated 9,000 Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel this year, the Prime Minister’s Office announced Monday. Several Likud MKs criticized the move and threatened to boycott Knesset votes unless the numbers are increased.
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The first Falashmura to arrive will be the sick, elderly and lone individuals. A decision on bringing the remaining 8,500 or so over will be postponed until after discussions are held on the 2017 budget. The Falashmura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity under duress.
MK David Amsalem (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, said he and party colleague MK Avraham Nagosa – chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs – would not attend votes in the Knesset until the decision is changed and more immigrants are allowed in this year.
Last November, the government approved the immigration of all eligible Falashmura waiting in camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar within the next five years.
However, Eli Groner, the director general of the PMO, announced two weeks ago that the plan to bring the Falashmura over was made without allocating funds and so would be postponed until after budget discussions. He based his decision on the so-called “numerator law,” that went into effect this year as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill. It obliges the government to find a budgetary source for every financial commitment.
The Finance Ministry estimated the cost of bringing over 8,000 to 9,000 Falashmura at some 2.2 billion shekels ($562 million) over five years. The ministry included in its estimate the cost of giving a grant to every immigrant for housing, something other immigrants do not receive. The PMO, however, said it would be necessary to absorb a population that has no means of paying for housing after leaving an absorption center.
Amsalem claimed the figure was an overestimation and that the total cost would be nearer to 500 million shekels.
Udi Prawer, head of the PMO’s policy planning branch, announced the immigration move during a joint meeting of the Knesset interior and absorption committees on Monday. He said that despite there being no approved budget resource, enough funds would be allocated this year to absorb the 500 Falashmura.
“We’re talking about a very small amount of money – about 107 million shekels during the entire numerator year,” said Prawer. “We thought it wouldn’t be fair for people in a tough situation to wait longer. We wanted, first and foremost, to bring them over. Until we get to the discussions for the 2017 budget and beyond, we will start doing something and handle the weakest group.”
But Amsalem was outraged by Prawer’s statement. “It’s an insult to the intelligence that you gave such a response,” he told him. “Are you not ashamed? What are you doing dealing in small numbers? I am ashamed of your answer! I didn’t expect such a response.”
Negosa told Prawer, “They are lying to us, deceiving us, and we won’t let it go.” He also told Prawer there was a possibility “of bringing these people over in the 2016 budget.”
He added: “You are looking for an excuse and then you found shelter. We won’t let you use this shelter. We’re talking about 500 people. A matter of values became a tomato market. That’s what you do. Zionism turned into a matter of ministerial accountants. You forgot that we’re talking about human beings. People are dying every day.”
MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) told the discussion, “Is this country a corner market? It has a budget, so it has to stay within the budget? Or does this country have a Zionist vision that drives it, and we make decisions on the basis of the Zionist vision and then find funding sources?
“According to the numerator law, it is impossible to launch Operation Protective Edge,” she continued. “It sounds like a bad joke. Everything tied to the Zionist vision is irrelevant because of the numerator law. The Jews in Gondar and Addis Ababa, who perhaps are not Jewish enough for the state or certain elements of it, are more Jewish than many of the people living here in the State of Israel. This selection of how to implement the Law of Return has an element of racism; there is no other word. What does this matter say? That some immigrants are more equal than others? In my eyes, the Law of Return trumps the numerator law.”
Prawer defended the government, saying, “There is the reality of law, and both the PMO and Finance Ministry need to function within this reality. We will bring the group that is having the hardest time in order not to wait for the budget. I can’t promise what will be in the budget. I am neither a Knesset member nor a minister.
“MKs Amsalem and Negosa can disagree with me. The decision the government made last summer will have to go through another kind of discussion within the present budget, because otherwise I don’t know how to carry it out. I suggest not attributing things to me that I don’t have – neither unreceptiveness nor lack of will.”