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Why not all Israelis are happy over Ethiopian immigrants

The reason that Netanyahu’s government authorized the immigration to Israel of 400 Ethiopians might have been political, but there are no guarantees it will encourage Israeli Ethiopians to vote for the Likud in the March elections.
Members of the Israeli Ethiopian community pray during a ceremony marking the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd in Jerusalem November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Corinna Kern - RC2OJD9JTTLI

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that there is a chance of forming a narrow right-wing government after the election — i.e., one that would depend on at least 61 mandates — and he is thus chasing after every possible vote. As part of this sprint for votes, Netanyahu pushed Feb. 9 for a government decision on bringing to Israel 400 new immigrants from Ethiopia who have first-degree relations in Israel. He is doing so while ignoring strong opposition from many elements within the Ethiopian community in Israel who claim that those potential immigrants are not Jewish and not interested in being Jewish, but are using an opportunity to leave Ethiopia, whose economic situation is dire. Some have even told Al-Monitor that bringing in these Christian Ethiopians will hurt the Likud party and decrease support for it among Jewish Israeli Ethiopians. 

Netanyahu promoted this decision even against the opposition of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the legal adviser to the prime minister’s office, Shlomit Barnea Farago, who both believe that there is a legal impediment to approving this decision. An opinion presented to the ministers before the Feb. 9 debate argued that the decision would constitute a benefit to a voting public that could be seen as motivated by political considerations. The opinion sharply criticizes the lack of comprehensive groundwork and verified data on the number of people at transit camps in Ethiopia who seek to emigrate to Israel. It further stated that “no reason has been given that points to concrete urgency to make the decision less than a month before the election date. Likewise, this does not relate to continuity in implementing government policy but rather to a change in policy. There is concern that making this decision will restrict the judgement of a new government. Therefore, there is concern that accepting the suggestion at this time would constitute a benefit to a certain electoral sector, which could be seen as motivated by election campaign considerations.”

Ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister Aryeh Deri could have also become an opponent of the decision, following the opposition of several rabbis to bringing non-Jews to Israel. Eventually, Deri supported the proposal, apparently toeing the line with Netanyahu’s demands in order to help him in the election campaign. 

Netanyahu boasted at the government meeting that he is responsible for bringing thousands of immigrants from Ethiopia in his decade in office, and promised that budgets would be allocated to absorb and integrate the new immigrants and to fight racism toward the Ethiopian community.  The recent Cabinet decision relies on government decisions from 2016 and 2018, according to which Ethiopian citizens should be admitted as immigrants if they have first-degree relations in Israel, most of whom are from the Falash Mura — descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th century, who are now living in transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa. Their immigration in the past and their immigration now falls under the provisions of the Law of Entry to Israel and not the Law of Return, which applies only to Jews or descendants of Jews. Government decisions have determined that the conditions for bringing in this group require an official request from a first-degree relative living in Israel, being on a list of those waiting at transit camps, consent to undergo a conversion process, and more.

A decisive factor in reaching the decision in 2016 was the political pressure exerted by then-Knesset member Avraham Nagosa and Knesset member David Amsalem, both from the Likud, who leveraged the then-narrow majority of the government, which depended on 61 Knesset members. The two announced that they will not vote with the government in the Knesset if it does not accept the decision to bring the thousands of Falash Mura and their relatives from Ethiopia. 

The current government decision follows the return of Knesset member Gadi Yabarkan from the rival Blue and White party to the Likud last month. With these two moves Netanyahu hopes to ensure the votes of the Ethiopian community for the Likud. More than 130,000 Ethiopians live in Israel, and their electoral power is estimated at two to three mandates. Even though the vote of the community is not uniform, many of them have traditionally voted for parties on the right, but in the latest election, in September 2019, many votes shifted to Blue and White. This is both because it put two Ethiopian candidates on its list and because the community wished to register a protest at the accidental killing in June 2019 of an Ethiopian youth — Solomon Tekah — by a policeman, an event that drew violent protests against the police and the government.

The debate over the immigration of these 400 people has torn apart the two parts of the Ethiopian Israeli community, Beta Israel and the Falash Mura. Beta Israel had maintained Judaism in Ethiopia over the years and were brought to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s. As aforementioned, the Falash Mura are Christian of Jewish descent, who converted in the 19th century for various reasons and sought to immigrate to Israel, with the support of Jewish organizations. In 2003, a decision was made to bring this group to Israel as well, which was estimated to number a few thousand, but has grown over the years. Tens of thousands of Falash Mura, who gathered at transit camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar, have already immigrated to Israel. The constant growth in their numbers stems from the wish of the group and organizations that support them to unite families, and thus more and more relatives are added to the list. The number of people waiting now in Ethiopia to immigrate to Israel is estimated at 9,000.

Uri Prednick, chairman of the movement to promote the immigration of Ethiopian Jews, said that indeed many thousands of people in Ethiopia wish to immigrate to Israel to be united with their families. “We have to do justice once and for all with the remnant of Ethiopian Jewry who left their villages and gave up all their property to immigrate to Israel. Bringing them will ease the burden of thousands of families in Israel who greatly suffer because of the cruel separation from their loved ones,” he told Al-Monitor. 

On the other hand, Ayanau Pareda Senbeto, a journalist who immigrated in 1991 with his parents as part of Operation Solomon, said that Christian immigration poses an existential threat to Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Those who now await immigration are no longer Falash Mura, he told Al-Monitor, but total Christians who cause a growth of Christian missionizing and a sharp rise in the number of Ethiopians who attend churches in Israel.

Kes Avihu Azarya, a respected religious leader of the Jewish Ethiopian community, said that because the Kessim, the religious and spiritual leaders of the community, have not been asked to verify the entitlement of Ethiopians (their linkage to Judaism and to the community) to immigrate to Israel attests to the process not being clean and that people are being brought who have no connection to Judaism or even to the Falash Mura. He accused the Chief Rabbinate of not being involved in the process and not preventing the immigration of people who have no connection to Judaism.

However, this effort has already failed, since in the past two decades tens of thousands of Falash Mura have been brought to Israel, who now wish to bring their relatives as well. 

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