PM agrees to increase flow of Ethiopian immigrants
By Marc Israel Sellem
After months of pressure and criticism from members of the Ethiopian community in Israel and their supporters worldwide, the government finally agreed Sunday night to dramatically increase the number of immigrants arriving here monthly from the East African nation.
Sunday’s decision was reached between representatives of the ’s Office, the ministries of , Interior and Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency at a joint session held at the agency’s Board of Governors meeting, taking place this week in Jerusalem.
“The Jewish Agency is thrilled by this decision and will do everything in our power to bring this historic aliya to its completion as quickly as possible,” commented Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky after the meeting.
The new arrangement will mean that instead of only 110 new immigrants arriving in Israel each month, as has been the case for the last few months, some 250 Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago – will be allowed to immigrate.
A spokesman for the Jewish Agency said that it had some 1,200 free beds in absorption centers here and that the increased rate of aliya would continue until June, when the situation will be reassessed to determine how much space is left.
Continuing to bring 250 immigrants each month will depend on whether those living in the absorption centers are given enough support to enable them to move out and free up space to allow more immigrants to arrive.
While Sharansky thanked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for his leadership on this issue, those who have been lobbying the government to increase the flow of aliya for humanitarian reasons welcomed the news with caution.
“Of I am delighted that for the next four months at least the rate will be increased to 250 a month,” said Joseph Feit, former president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a charity that previously ran the services for those waiting to immigrate.
“I am also pleased that serious consideration will be given to opening a new immigrant absorption centers, even though the details of how those centers will be financed is still not clear.”
Feit also said if the absorption rate stays above 200 a month, it could mean that the overall aliya operation in Ethiopia will finish ahead of the touted March 2014 schedule.
The latest decision to increase the number of immigrants arriving here each month is a turnabout for the government, which in November announced that it was adopting recommendations made by a Treasury committee to reduce the number of people coming to 110 a month.
Local and international supporters, however, have spent the last four months putting pressure on the government to increase the number to at least 200, claiming that the longer the community waits in Ethiopia to immigrate the more complicated the absorption process will be. In addition, they have pointed out that the situation facing the Falash Mura community in the Northern Ethiopian city of Gondar is particularly harsh, especially after they have been found eligible for immigration by the Israeli government.
Sunday’s decision follows a government declaration in November 2010 to continue the flow of aliya from Ethiopia, allowing roughly 8,000 to come to Israel within three years. To date, 6,000 Falash Mura have been officially approved for aliya; however, while half of those have arrived here, the rest continue to wait.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar officially recognized the Falash Mura as part of the Jewish people in 2002, and they were allowed to make aliya under a special clause in the Law of Entry.
The immigrants must undergo conversion to Judaism upon arrival in Israel.