Ongoing Battle Over the 'Lost Jews'

Are American Jewish organizations turning their backs on the Jews of Ethiopia - not to mention their own heritage - by supporting the Israeli government's decision to shut down immigration operations from that country, even though there are still thousands of people who want to make aliyah? That's what Don Futterman asserted in his opinion piece last week ("No 'Remnant' Left Behind?" June 27). By his telling, the United Jewish Communities, the Joint Distribution Committee and other groups have capitulated to the racist double standard of Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who demands far less of potential immigrants from the Former Soviet Union than he does of African applicants.

The minister exudes xenophobia when he speaks so emphatically of keeping out "lost Jewish communities," which makes it upsetting when Jewish leaders in the U.S. seemingly bow to his will. But the ultimate fate of the Falashmura - descendants of Ethiopian Jews who, with their families, converted to Christianity - does not lie with him. Make no mistake: Most of them will eventually make it to Israel. This is more an issue of the emotional and financial costs of their delay.

While I agree with Futterman that Israel should bring over the Falashmura, who now refer to themselves as "Beta Israel" just as other Ethiopian Jews do, I am not worried about Sheetrit being the ultimate gatekeeper. He is just the latest in a long list of interior ministers who have tried to stem the tide of Falashmura/Beta Israel and, like them, he is destined ultimately to fail.

Avraham Poraz in 2003 tried to delay implementation of the plan to allow the Falashmura to enter the country by insisting they go through complex eligibility checks. Natan Sharansky before him attempted to staunch the flow by agreeing to take in 5,000 Falashmura on humanitarian grounds and close the Gondar camp. He failed miserably, as the facilities quickly filled up, thanks to support from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. And Yair Tzaban unwittingly opened the gates in 1992 by agreeing to allow in Falashmura on a family-reunification basis, despite concluding they were ineligible according to the Law of Return.

The next round of Falashmura immigration is inevitable because the activists and the will of the aspiring immigrants - not to mention the images of their longing - will ultimately force Israel to bend to its Zionist mission: the ingathering of the exiles. The South Wing to Zion association, founded in 1991 after then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to allow Falashmura to join their relatives in Operation Solomon, organized thousands of Ethiopian Jews to demonstrate in the streets of Jerusalem, holding up photographs of loved ones left behind. It has not given up the fight, and today has 20,000 faces to hold up to the public and the government. No interior minister can ever put a stop to that.

Go to Gondar, the city in Northern Ethiopia where they reside, and you'll see hundreds - though not thousands - of Falashmura expressing their love for and commitment to Israel. They end services every day with "Am yisrael hai." Hundreds of children in the school run by the Beta Israel Association learn Hebrew and sing "Hatikva" better than most U.S. Jews who are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. They enjoy the support of U.S. and local activists and will continue to do so. No interior minister can ever put a stop to that.

North American Jewry is understandably toeing the line because by all accounts the immigration should have ended by now. Do the math: A 1999 census indicated that only about 26,000 Falashmura eligible for immigration were left in Ethiopia. Close to 27,000 Falashmura have immigrated since, based on Jewish Agency statistics, yet we learn there are still 20,000 who want to come - all of whom were left off the original list, according to activists. So it's more than just racist rhetoric when the interior ministry says it is worried about a bottomless pit. Still, when the time comes to pitch in again, the UJC, the Jewish Agency and the JDC will all continue to fulfill Israel's historic mission.

The tragedy of Sheetrit's vein efforts will be the time and resources that are lost, which could be used to help the immigrants reach Israel and adjust to their new home sooner. The controlled flow of immigration over the past decade has been a godsend compared to the chaotic absorption of Operation Moses in the 1980s and Operation Solomon in 1991. The Jewish Agency and the Interior Ministry have streamlined the operation of the immigration machine, which is capable of smoothly processing 75-100 Beta Israel a week, but Sheetrit wants the whole apparatus dismantled prematurely. If he succeeds, everyone will have to retool that machine the day after the political echelon reverses its policy - at the expense of unfortunate members of the community.

Now we learn the cabinet is reconsidering its policy of rejecting those 8,700 Falashmura living in Gondar. The June 30 deadline passed, and no infrastructure has been dismantled. My bet would be that once Sheetrit is gone, another minister will arise to tell us Israel is taking them in after all. A few years down the line, his or her successor will declare the end of Ethiopian Jewish immigration. And then the battle over the next 11,000 "lost Jews" in Ethiopia will commence.

Steven Klein is an editor at the Haaretz English edition.