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Israel Accepts Ethiopians of Jewish Descent, but Fewer Than Promised


JERUSALEM — The Israeli government on Monday approved an airlift of 2,000 Ethiopians of Jewish descent to Israel in the coming months, prompting angry reactions from Ethiopian Israeli activists who insist that about 8,000 should be resettled.

Israel permits Jews around the world to settle there under its Law of Return, but does not grant that right to people known as Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity about a century ago, many under duress, though they identify as Jewish or of Jewish lineage.

“We need all of our brothers and sisters to be brought here,” said Kassahun Shiferaw, an Ethiopian Israeli activist. “Only allowing part of them to come is not sufficient.”

Jews in Ethiopia, known as Beta Israel, were largely cut off from the mainstreams of Judaism for millenniums and their faith evolved in somewhat different form, but Israeli authorities have generally recognized them as Jewish. Since the 1970s, tens of thousands have been admitted from Ethiopia, where they had faced persecution.

But what was once celebrated as a heartwarming story of rescue and solidarity has taken on a less rosy hue, raising questions about racial acceptance in Israel. Israelis of Ethiopian descent, who number about 150,000, say they often face discrimination and excessive use of force by the police. Many of them have had trouble integrating into Israeli society, and their rates of poverty and unemployment are high.

The position of the Falash Mura — a term some of them consider demeaning — is more tenuous than that of the larger Beta Israel population.

Though many of the descendants of converts to Christianity are observant Jews, the Israeli government does not consider them to be fully Jewish. They require special permission to migrate to Israel, and upon arriving in the country must undergo a conversion process, even if they already practice Judaism.

In November 2015, Israel approved a plan to bring the remaining Falash Mura, about 10,000 people, to its territory by the end of 2020. But a few months after the decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it would not follow through on the plan due to budget constraints. Since then, Israel has allowed around 2,000 of the Ethiopians to immigrate.

The plan approved on Monday would admit about one-quarter of the roughly 8,000 who remain, living in mostly run-down communities in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa, the capital, and Gondar. Some have been trying to relocate to Israel for 20 years.

“There have been too many broken promises,” said Mr. Shiferaw. “The time has come for executing decisions.”

In a letter to Mr. Netanyahu, current and retired Israeli military officers from the Ethiopian community blasted the government decision.

“It is unfathomable that the immigration from around the world continues, while quotas and limits are only placed on immigration of Ethiopian Jews,” said the officers, all of whom have siblings or parents waiting in Ethiopia to come to Israel.

Pnina Tamano-Shata, the minister of immigration and absorption who spearheaded the plan to bring the 2,000 Ethiopians, called the government decision “very exciting,” but she acknowledged that she was sympathetic to the criticisms against it.

“They are right,” said Ms. Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian Israeli to serve as a government minister, referring to the Ethiopian Israeli activists. “I think we need to bring everyone here as soon as possible, but unfortunately we only received a budget for 2,000 people this time.”

The minister said she planned to present to the government a plan to relocate another 7,000 Ethiopians to Israel in 2021 and 2022, and the rest in 2023.

Ms. Tamano-Shata said the government had allocated $109,320,000 to bring the 2,000 Ethiopians to Israel and assist them with their absorption into Israeli society. She also said all of them would receive coronavirus tests before entering Israel and would be required to quarantine for two weeks at special facilities or family members’ homes.

Mr. Netanyahu said he had spoken last week with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who he said had promised to help with Israel’s effort to bring the Ethiopians to its territory.

Sefy Bililin, an Israeli Ethiopian who is waiting for her two sisters, 22 and 29, to come from Addis Ababa to Israel, said she was praying they would be included in the 2,000.

“It’s impossible to know if they will make it this time, but I really hope they do,” said Ms. Bililin, 25, who last saw her sisters a year ago on a trip to Ethiopia. “I don’t want to even think about the possibility that they’ll be left behind again.”

In Addis Ababa, Amare Ezra said both of his parents had already moved to Israel but he was still stuck in Ethiopia.

“I’ve been here for 18 years,” waiting to go, said Mr. Ezra, 40. “I’m wishing it will finally happen.”

Simon Marks contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.



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