Sunday, July 26, 2009

Shas restarts Ethiopian immigration - mistake?


Quietly, without fanfare or any sort of serious debate, the government is resuming Falashmura immigration from Ethiopia, a year after it was ended by the previous administration.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the man who holds the keys to the gates of Israeli citizenship, is sending officials to Ethiopia to restart the process of examining the eligibility of potential immigrants. They will be looking at Falashmura claiming to be descendants of Jews who for some reason or other converted to Christianity generations ago.

In the first stage, they will review the cases of 3,000 Falashmura who were apparently left out of the process, but ultimately Yishai wants to enable all the inhabitants of the Falashmura compound in Gondar, which has an official population of 8,700, to apply for citizenship.

Thus, in typical Israeli fashion, a whole government policy been overturned without a cabinet meeting to discuss the various ramifications, nor has there been any inter-departmental discussion to plan all the contingencies. So what if the entire immigration and absorption setup - operated jointly by the interior and absorption ministries, the embassy in Addis Ababa and the Jewish Agency - has been dismantled and nobody knows where the funding for rebuilding it is going to come from, for how long it is expected to operate again and for how many immigrants? Screw long-term planning.

The pressure groups pressed, the rabbis ruled and the minister gave the order. The word is out in Ethiopia, the disappointed multitudes who left the Gondar compound are returning, and more family members will be joining them. The Israelis are opening the gates again.

It is hardly surprising. The Operation Solomon airlift in May, 1991 was to have finished the saga of Ethiopian Jewry once and for all, but despite four government committees and countless policy decisions since, all it took was one ministerial dictate to change the situation.

The cabinet decided in 2005 to set a firm date after which the Falashmura immigration would end and to limit the total numbers of migrants who would be allowed in. So what? The influential Falashmura lobby predicted that all it was needed was change of government to re-open the process and they were right. An absurd coalition has grown up around the Falashmura cause. Liberal American Jews who want Israel to do their tikun olam (healing the world) by accepting black citizens with a vague connection to the Jewish people join religious right-wingers who see the Ethiopians as the ultimate antidote to the Palestinian demographic problem. And Shas rabbis clinging to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's original ruling, 35 years ago, in which he recognized the Falashmura as Jews, have also banded with them.

Former interior minister Meir Sheetrit opposed them, with the backing of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, but no one is going to stop his successor now. Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly not going to endanger his increasingly shaky coalition by fighting Shas on this issue; many of those around him have long been fans of the Falashmura cause.

Neither is he going to open up another front with American Jewish leaders. He needs their support now more than ever as the strategic relationship with Washington plumbs new depths. Can you imagine what it would look like if Israel denied the rights of "black Jews" while the son of a Kenyan sits in the Oval Office?

Of course no one has taken the trouble to consult with the impressive group of professionals, and Jewish Agency and Foreign Ministry veterans who worked in Ethiopia for years and have a clear position on the issue. They would have told them that there is no finite number of Falashmura who can claim a tenuous link to Jewish roots. The family structure and marriage norms of Ethiopian society are of a fluidity incomprehensible in the West and every new immigrant who is allowed in opens up the opportunity for former spouses and stepchildren who will demand family reunification.[...]

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