Israel seeks millions to resettle Ethiopians

NEW YORK — Israel is seeking $50 million from American Jews to resettle thousands of Ethiopians seeking to immigrate to the Jewish state.

Tension over the handling of Ethiopia's Falash Mura has escalated between American Jewish leaders and Israelis in recent months, as an estimated 18,000 people wait in difficult conditions in Addis Ababa and Gondar, in hopes that they will be allowed to move to Israel.

Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity. While some have embraced Judaism, all say they want to be reunited with relatives in Israel. Those in Addis Ababa and Gondar have left their homes and sources of income in smaller villages because they believe it is the only way their applications to immigrate to Israel will be processed.

Tension increased a notch last week when Israel's minister of absorption, Yuli Tamir, said that without financial commitment from U.S. Jewry, there would be no effort to speed up what critics have called a slow immigration process.

For their part, officials of Jewish organizations say there is support for aiding the Ethiopian immigrants, but they first want Israel to commit to speeding up the process.

In a sign of increased concern among Americans, the Israel and Overseas Pillar of the United Jewish Communities — the newly formed umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations — recently created a small fact-finding committee that will meet with players on all sides of the issue, travel to Ethiopia and draft a report by July.

Asked his reaction to Israel's monetary request, the committee's head, Bob Reitman of Cleveland, said, "I like to put the horse before the cart. The first thing we have to do is understand the facts. Then we can engage on the question of should there be special funding options, or what other options exist."

However, Reitman noted that "one of the things world Jewry can take pride in is the fact that when we've identified problems that demanded solutions, we've provided."

Although Israel expects the absorption of additional Ethiopians to be expensive, the conflict appears to be more about the eligibility of the Falash Mura than the costs of their absorption.

Unlike the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who were brought to Israel in the early 1990s under Operation Solomon, there's a lack of consensus about the status of the Falash Mura.

Israel does not recognize the Falash Muras' claims to Judaism, but instead is determining their eligibility under the Law of Return. That law allows immigration for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, along with his or her spouse, children, grandchildren and their spouses.

Israeli officials are reviewing applications on a case-by-case basis. Israel is also concerned that the Falash Mura could bring an endless stream of impoverished, non-Jewish relatives into Israel.

Fewer than 200 Falash Mura have been brought to Israel since the beginning of the year.

Living conditions are poor at the compounds in Ethiopia where the would-be immigrants have gathered. While some humanitarian aid is offered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, advocates say it is inadequate.

However, the JDC has said that providing better services would simply attract more Ethiopians to the compounds.

Federations around North America have raised the possibility of providing direct funding to address the humanitarian needs of those in Ethiopia.

Tamir told American Jewish leaders that the government is divided over how to handle the matter.

She said the issue will be discussed "as soon as we can get to it," but that the government is currently preoccupied with the peace process.

Tamir said she would speak with the JDC about the possibility of the organization providing more humanitarian assistance to those waiting in the compounds.

However, Asher Ostrin, the JDC professional responsible for operations in Ethiopia, told JTA that he did not anticipate changing its services in response to such a request.

"At this point in time, we think we're doing what should be done."

Most Jewish organizational officials believe the ball is in Israel's court: Until Israel expedites the process, American Jews cannot mobilize a fund-raising campaign.

"I think American Jews would feel pride to help. But it has to come from Israel," said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "The perception is that there are those in Israel saying no, put this aside."