Jewish Week -- Ariel Sharon’s announcement that the Israeli government will double the rate of Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel is being called a breakthrough by those who long have lobbied to help the Falash Mura.
But with the bill projected at close to $2 billion — an estimated $100,000 for each of the 20,000 Ethiopians eligible to immigrate — no one is sure just who will pay.
The Israeli prime minister said Monday that all eligible Falash Mura — Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity but who have returned to Jewish practice — would be brought to Israel by the end of 2007.
Some 300 Falash Mura currently are allowed to immigrate to Israel each month, but that number will be doubled starting in June, Sharon said.
His announcement came after a meeting with Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration and absorption; Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni; and Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz.
The Falash Mura still in Ethiopia have been gathered in compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a New York-based group.
Three months after the new immigration policy takes effect, the Jewish Agency will take over the camps, said Joseph Feit, a past NACOEJ president.
Long in the works, the agreement between NACOEJ and the Jewish Agency was secured Sunday night, Feit said.
This is not the first time Israel has promised to expedite Falash Mura aliyah, but there is reason to think the plan will be implemented this time.
The Law of Return, which guarantees Israeli citizenship to almost any Jew who wants it, does not apply to the Falash Mura because of their past conversions. However, the Israeli cabinet voted in February 2003 to immediately begin to determine who among the Falash Mura could trace matrilineal descent back past the generation of converts.
The process has been slow, with Israel sometimes citing the high cost of absorbing the Falash Mura, given the tremendous social and cultural gap separating them from other Israelis.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency and its primary funder, the North American Jewish federation system, have pressed Israel to bring the Falash Mura on aliyah.
When the federation system held its annual conference in Israel two years ago, then-president Stephen Hoffman personally urged Sharon to expedite the immigration.
When news of Sharon’s announcement reached this week’s board meetings of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the federation system, Hoffman said the federations deserved partial credit for a step of “great historic significance.”
It “just doesn’t happen unless we all band together and change history,” Hoffman said, according to one UJC official.
But the federation system has yet to determine its share in easing the financial burden of Falash Mura immigration and absorption.
Observers of the issue expect payment to come from various groups including the Israeli government, the federation system and its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The Jewish Agency, which long has lobbied for quicker Falash Mura immigration, will be the group’s primary caretaker, managing the compounds and handling immigration and absorption.
The Jewish Agency receives $50 million a year from the U.S. government to settle immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union in Israel.
The group plans to discuss fund raising for the project at its Board of Governors meetings Feb. 20-22 in Jerusalem.
For now, the partners committed to the project say vaguely that their will can lead to a way forward.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, which took a prominent role on the issue, said: “The dedication of the Israeli government is a very positive step forward on all fronts, and if the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency and world Jewry wants to resolve this issue, as it appears we all do, then I have no doubt we’ll find the resources together.”