Friday, May 27, 2005

Israel Unprepared For Ethiopians

Though tens of thousands of Ethiopians are anticipating making aliyah, little has been done in Israel to prepare for their move.

Officials estimate that it will cost some $23 million for the immigration of about 20,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity but who have since returned to Judaism.

Beginning next month, plans call for 600 Falash Mura to make aliyah each month, twice the current level. At the new rate, it will take about two and a half years for the immigration to be complete.

The North American Jewish federation system, which is expected to fund the operation, hasn't yet begun its campaign.

Israel, too, is dragging its feet.

The Israeli Cabinet decided in February 2003 that Falash Mura who could prove a maternal link to Judaism could make aliyah.

Early this year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and some of his Cabinet ministers decided to double the monthly immigration rate. Sharon required an interministerial committee on the Falash Mura to report back to him by April 30 on budgeting and planning for the operation, according to Joseph Feit, past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ.

The interministerial committee hasn't yet submitted its report; the group was scheduled to meet Monday, but the meeting was postponed. Israeli Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who chairs the committee, is slated to travel to Ethiopia at the end of June.

The expected aliyah comes amid other developments that could hinder the operation.

For one, Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles aliyah, will resign next month.

Meridor was one of the Falash Mura's greatest advocates, lobbying Sharon and other key officials to support the group's aliyah. It's not yet clear to what extent his expected successor, Ra'anana Mayor Zeev Bielski, will champion the cause.

Secondly, NACOEJ, which has funded community programs in Addis Ababa and Gondar since 1992 and which helps run compounds in those cities where many Falash Mura live while waiting to emigrate, may lose its operating ability in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government recently stopped the group from operating in Addis because it lacked a nongovernmental-agency license.

The group continues working in Gondar, where 70 percent of NACOEJ's activities are based, and has applied for NGO status. The application is pending, Feit said.

The Jewish Agency is slated to take over the compounds three months after the expedited immigration begins, or after it has a complete list of eligible immigrants. If NACOEJ's work is interrupted, however, the handover could become more difficult.

The $23 million tab for Falash Mura aliyah was presented May 10 to officials of the United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for the North American Jewish federation system, by its overseas partners, JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

JAFI is budgeting more than $18 million for the operation; the JDC expects to pay $4.6 million. The figures do not include the cost of absorption once the Ethiopians arrive in Israel, said Mike Rosenberg, JAFI's director general of immigration and absorption.

At its board meeting, set for June 5-6 in New York, UJC is expected to approve a fund-raising initiative for the Falash Mura and to help absorb Ethiopians in Israel.

"UJC recognizes the imperative of this issue, and we are working on and examining it directly with the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee," UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz said.

A few years ago, UJC worked with JAFI, the JDC, the Israeli government and Keren Hayesod, a body of world Jewish communities excluding North America, to raise money to help absorb Ethiopians in Israel.

Federations were asked to give an additional five percent above their previous overseas allocations to the Ethiopian National Project, said Richard Wexler of Chicago, UJC vice chairman.

But that campaign soon was overshadowed by a campaign to raise funds for Israel's needs during the intifada. With little advocacy for the Ethiopian National Project, Wexler said, the federations' response "was less than lukewarm.

Baltimore Jewish Times

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