Government approves Yishai's plan to bring 20,000 Falashmura to Israel
By Mazal Mualem
[Ha'aretz - 17 Feb}
The cabinet yesterday approved Interior Minister Eli Yishai's plan to immediately bring some 20,000 Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel.
About 80,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, many of them brought over in massive airlifts during times of crisis in Ethiopia in 1984 and 1991.
The Falashmura are Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, while maintaining some Jewish traditions. Unable to prove their Jewish roots, most of the Falashmura were not allowed to immigrate to Israel, even though many have family ties to the Jewish state.
In recent years, some 18,000 Falashmura have left homes in outlying regions of Ethiopia in anticipation of moving to Israel, and have rented mud huts near two compounds run by immigration activists in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and in the northern city of Gondar.
Some Falashmura have immigrated to Israel, either by proving they have a Jewish grandparent, or under reunification laws if other family members had proved eligible for immigration.
The government decided yesterday to create a special ministerial committee to oversee implementation of the plan that would be headed by Yishai and include officials from the ministries of absorption, education, housing and construction, finance, as well as the Jewish Agency.
Yishai's plan was put together over the past year in the spirit of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's ruling concerning "the saving of souls of Israel." The plan represents a significant turnaround in policy in that since 1998, Ethiopian immigrants have been brought to Israel gradually, based on the Law of Return and the Entry into Israel Law.
Itzik Sudri, a Shas spokesman, said Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had ruled that the Falashmura had converted to Christianity because of fear. "They lived double lives," Sudri said. "On the outside, they lived as Christians; but internally, they preserved their Jewish culture."
Yishai tried to bring his plan up for government approval during the election campaign, but Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein expressed reservations about making a decision on the matter at that time. The Justice Ministry also expressed reservations about Rabbi Yosef's involvement in determining the Falashmuras' right to immigrate to Israel.
These views were supported by Housing Minister Natan Sharansky and his fellow Yisrael b'Aliyah party member, Deputy Immigrant Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein. The two argue that Yishai's plan is problematic, that it goes against the views of experts in the field, and that it is tainted by political motives.
Rubinstein had informed Yishai that he would not be able to implement his plan without cabinet approval as it ran contrary to a previous government decision under which the right to immigrate would be reviewed in accordance with the Law of Return.
Yishai, however, insisted on not postponing the decision because of what he said were the dangers and the difficult conditions the Falashmura were facing in Addis Ababa and Gondar.