Twenty-three years after Operation Solomon, the airlift that was supposed to bring all the Jews from Ethiopia to Israel, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced yesterday (Wednesday) that the saga of the Falashmura, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity a century ago, is to continue.
Saar, who is to resign next week, asked the government to extend by an additional year the mandate of a special exemptions committee that has been examining the cases of relatives of Ethiopian-Israelis who have not been allowed to emigrate to Israel. In effect, Sa’ar has left to his successor the difficult decision of whether to end aliyah from Ethiopia or reopen large-scale immigration to Israel. The surprising detail in his request from the government is that in the year since the “final” aliyah operation from Ethiopia ended, the number of those asking to emigrate has jumped from around 1,900 to 6,000.
For over two decades, Israel’s governments have made a long series of contradicting decisions regarding the Falashmura. At first the government and the Jewish Agency would not recognize them as eligible for aliyah. But over the years, following pressure from part of the Ethiopian community in Israel (not the whole community since some regard the Falashmura as renegades), a small group of right-wing and Shas rabbis and American-Jewish organizations, Israel facilitated the emigration of tens of thousands of Falashmuras. At every stage, the plan was to allow a fixed number to emigrate by a set date and then close down operations, but each time the government announced it had ended Ethiopian aliyah, new pressure for “family reunification” forced the gates open again.
In 2010, the Netanyahu government decided to renew aliyah from Ethiopia and undertook examination of a list of 8,200 Falashmura who claimed to fit the criterion of being matrilineally descended from Jews and having relatives already living in Israel. The process took nearly four years and 6,700 of the Falashmura on the list were duly flown to Israel. Operation “Wings of a Dove” ended in August 2013 when the Jewish Agency closed the compounds in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, where the children of those waiting to emigrate received food and schooling.
The Agency still has two small offices in Gondar and the capital Addis Ababa, which handles the small number of Ethiopians eligible to emigrate under the Law of Return and Falashmura who have been approved by the exemptions committee, which was supposed to be active for one year.
Last year there was mention of “a few hundred” Falashmura still claiming citizenship and some of the organizations working on their behalf maintained the number was as high as 1,900. The motion Gideon Sa’ar is planning to table next week, however, refers to 6,000 now demanding to emigrate and therefore the need to extend the committee’s mandate. There are no explanations as to how the number jumped by over 300 percent. Assuming at least half of them will eventually be approved, there is no infrastructure for facilitating another wide-scale aliyah from Ethiopia. In the past Israel, along with Jewish Diaspora organizations, spent tens of millions of dollars preparing the Falashmura for emigration and flying them to Israel.
The Jewish Agency confirmed there are no plans for increasing emigration from Ethiopia. Over the last year since the compounds in Gondar were closed down, emigration from Ethiopia dropped by nearly 90 percent. In the first nine months of 2014, 147 Ethiopians made aliyah, compared to over 1,300 in the same period in 2013. Without major investment, the current candidates for emigration will have to wait years before arriving in Israel.
Sources in the now largely defunct organizations which lobbied in the past to bring the Falashmura to Israel confirmed that they are not pressuring the government and that the requests are coming from individual families with relatives still in Ethiopia. Many of them have joined in Facebook campaigns demanding their relatives be allowed to arrive. It is not clear though how their number has grown exponentially in such a short time and whether this is the result of a concerted effort or an individual initiative.
Since there is currently no demand for any major funding, Saar’s request is almost certain to be approved by the government next week. In a press release yesterday he issued an appeal to the state to “make a brave decision to do justice with its citizens whose families have been torn for years.”
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