Would-be Ethiopian immigrants question Law of Return policy

JERUSALEM — From the hilltop caravan site known as Givat Hamatos, the entire new city of Jerusalem shines below like a mirage.

About 150 Ethiopian immigrant families once known as Falash Mura — Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity — look down with envy at everything from the drab housing projects of Katamon to the quaint red-roofed homes of old Talpiot.

Yet despite their relative poverty, most of the emigres know they are very lucky. Back in Ethiopia, war is raging, famine is spreading and 26,000 more Falash Mura — including many of their family members — are desperately waiting to be granted entry to Israel. Some 18,000 of then have amassed at transit camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where they live in squalid conditions.

They would be more than happy to live in temporary housing.

Last month, Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky returned from a visit to Ethiopia with promises to expedite the process of verifying who is eligible to immigrate. But Sharansky also indicated that perhaps only several thousand will qualify.

For Israel, the unresolved debate over whether the Falash Mura were originally converted by force or chose Christianity is not the main issue. Rather, Israel fears a sweeping exodus could open the floodgates to non-Jewish Ethiopians seeking to escape Africa by claiming reunification with family members in Israel.

But the residents of Givat Hamatos do not understand why, if the Jewish state has recognized their right to return, their relatives are being scrutinized.

"They are eligible to come," said Bakala Abera, 65, who immigrated with his Falash Mura wife and then converted to Judaism himself. Abera's wife has two brothers waiting to emigrate from Ethiopia.

"The people in the camps have left their homes, farms, cattle and everything…I find it a very puzzling question why [the Israeli government] are making difficulties for Ethiopians when there is no such difficulty for immigrants from other states."

Israel says the problem is not so simple. In 1997 and 1998, pressure mounted on Israel to allow about 4,000 Falash Mura to immigrate.

Sharansky said they were brought in without being checked against Israel's Law of Return, but he rejected accusations that the government is dragging its feet because the immigrants are black.

"Of all the countries in the world," Sharansky said, "we are the only ones bringing black people from Africa and granting them citizenship immediately. We never provided such liberal criteria [as we did] in Ethiopia."

Sharansky has now secured support from Israel's finance department and American Jewish organizations to increase the Israeli government staff in Ethiopia from one to three people and to bring in a handful of Israelis to help.

There are currently about 250 Ethiopians cleared for immigration. Although Sharansky thinks the process will be quicker with the staff increases, he said it could take as long as a year before all potential immigrants are checked, as many have no documents to easily verify their eligibility.

It is possible, he added, that more than half of those waiting will be denied visas.

"They are saying that anyone with an aunt or uncle should come," said Sharansky, who said the Law of Return allows immigration for those with at least one Jewish grandparent, along with his or her spouse, children, grandchildren and their spouses.

Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, a Falash Mura lobby group, disagreed.

Flipping through lists of all the Falash Mura families still in Ethiopia compiled by an Israeli committee, Neguise shows that almost every one of the 26,000 potential immigrants claims a relative in Israel — more than two-thirds claim a primary relation.

"It is very convincing," he said. "The most distant relative you see here is cousins."

"If this kind of community existed in Russia or America or Europe, the Jewish Agency would be very happy to quickly bring the people and rejoice," he said, accusing the government of racist motivations despite a severe humanitarian crisis.

The Jewish Agency for Israel rejects any responsibility for the bottleneck, as it is only responsible for implementing government policy and does not decide who is eligible to immigrate.

Nevertheless, Mike Rosenberg, director of the organization's immigration and absorption department, said expediting the process is a priority.

"But we are not going to guarantee that everyone is eligible," he added. "I believe that most of them are not eligible under the Law of Return, but many may be because of family ties."

Meanwhile, the Falash Mura immigrants who have already arrived are keenly aware of what is at stake.

"It will not even end after 50,000 immigrants," said one source close to the Falash Mura community, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Even they say that this will not be the end of it."