Ethiopian activists demand Israel honor aliyah promise

JERUSALEM — "Every day I go to the Ministry of the Interior," says Binkito Baquaia, grasping pictures of her family.

"I have been separated from my mother, father, brother and sisters for six years. I keep trying to find out what is happening with them, when Israel will bring them," she continues. "The Ministry of the Interior staff repeatedly brush me off. They refuse to answer me.

"My mother and father are sick, but I can't help them," she says, her voice filled with pain. "I don't have money and I have two children. I send whatever I can, but it is not enough."

Baquaia is among thousands of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrating against the Interior Ministry this week, demanding that the immigration of the Falash Mura — the majority of whose ancestors converted to Christianity under social and economic pressure — be expedited.

Some 2,000 protesters marched through Jerusalem on Sunday, congregating in front of the Interior Ministry for a six-hour demonstration.

The demonstrators also threatened a hunger strike if their demands are not met.

"We are demanding the implementation of the government's Feb. 16 decision" to expedite the immigration of the Falash Mura, said Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion: The Association for the Ingathering and Absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, which is organizing the weeklong protest.

When Israel began carrying out large-scale immigration operations of Ethiopian Jews in the early 1990s, many Falash Mura attempted to join the wave, claiming they were Jewish by ancestry.

The number of Falash Mura continued to grow, leading the Israeli government to believe they were not Jews but just wanted to leave famine-plagued Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Jewish activists have been lobbying for the Falash Mura, maintaining that many of them were forced to convert or never really abandoned their Jewish faith, and that now they are practicing Judaism.

In 1998, after bringing a group of 4,000 Falash Mura, most of whom had relatives in Israel, the government changed its policy, reviewing each Ethiopian immigration request on an individual basis.

In 1999, government surveyors registered 26,000 people in camps run by international activists in Addis Ababa and Gondar. A few thousand have immigrated every year since then, but some have been waiting for up to 10 years to join family members in Israel.

The Feb. 16 decision ordered the government to immediately examine the eligibility of an estimated 18,000 waiting to immigrate and bring anyone descended from an Ethiopian Jew on the mother's side.

But Neguise claimed that Interior Minister Avraham Poraz last week reversed the Feb. 16 decision, arguing that Israel does not have enough money to bring the Falash Mura.

The "economic difficulties of the state cannot be ignored," Poraz told the Knesset committee on May 19. "Every time the camps are emptied they become refilled. This is a never-ending story."

In the week since Poraz spoke, Neguise said, 26 Falash Mura youth died in Addis Ababa and Gondar of sickness and hunger.

"We never said that we are going to bring them immediately," said the ministry spokesman, Tipi Rabinovitch. "The decision still stands that Israel is interested in bringing the Falash Mura, and that we need to establish a board, to check whether it's economically feasible to bring them."

Demonstrators argued that money is an excuse for postponing the resolution of a decade-long humanitarian crisis.

Mikoyet Zagiyeh, an Israeli soldier whose father is stuck in Ethiopia, noted that Israel sends government representatives to actively scout out immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

"I serve with Russians who have no connection to Judaism whatsoever," he said, "but they were brought to Israel and they have all these rights."

Asked if the ministry considers economic factors when deciding to bring immigrants from Russia or Argentina, Rabinovitch hedged.

"Money is always somewhere in the picture," he said.