A Jewish Agency Response

April 1, 2000
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Mike Rosenberg

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1971, I made aliyah to Israel and made my home at Kibbutz Ma’ale Hachamisha where I became, and still am, a member. I have always been active in various Jewish and Zionist affairs–in the USA as an emissary, in my own kibbutz, the United Kibbutz Movement, and within the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

Since 1997 I have been the Director-General of JAFI’s Immigration and Absorption Department and directly responsible for all of the activities of the Jewish Agency in these areas, both in Israel and around the world.

One of my primary concerns and aims is the rescue and successful absorption of all Ethiopians eligible under the Law of Return. While I agree that the problems of Ethiopian absorption must be on the agenda of the entire Jewish people, and that Israel should have the moral and financial support of Jewish communities to meet this challenge, the issue is not a question of who will pay for absorption, but rather a question of eligibility under the Law of Return. I believe that any individual that is eligible under the Law of Return, whether from Ethiopia or any other place in the world, should be brought home to Israel if he or she so desires.

The Falas Mura are descendants of Jews who were converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century. Eligibility for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return excludes individuals who have converted out of Judaism.

The Israeli government established a special committee, headed by the then-Minister of Absorption Mr. Yair Tzaban, to investigate the cause of the Falas Mura. The Recommendations of the Committee, which were published in January 1993, indicated that even though it was almost certain that the Falas Mura are not Jews today, they should be brought to Israel as part of a special humanitarian campaign that is based not on the Law of Return, but rather on reuniting families in the framework of the Law of Entry (a regular Israeli immigration law).

Within this framework, any Jewish immigrant was entitled to bring first-degree relatives who were left in Ethiopia to Israel if the relative was:

  1. an unmarried child
  2. a parent of a minor or single person
  3. a spouse whose wife or husband was already in Israel
  4. a humanitarian case that did not fall into any of the above categories

By 1997, some 5,200 Ethiopian immigrants had arrived in Israel under the Tzaban Committee’s decision to reunite families. A 1997 decision (based on the Law of Entry) approved immigration of Falas Mura on the condition that they were from “the seed of Israel.” After that, however, the criteria for immigration would solely follow the criteria of the Law of Return.

Most of the residents of the Addis Ababa compound were in fact brought to Israel by July 1998, but the flow of immigrants to the Addis compound did not stop. People continued to flock to Addis and to Gondar in the hope that they would be brought to Israel, a hope that was fed by the very fact that Jewish organizations continued to provide support services for them, in violation of previous agreements to curtail activities in Ethiopia and focus efforts on absorption in Israel.

According to reports from the field, there are now thousands of Falas Mura in Addis Ababa, and the Gondar area. Most of these people are not eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return, and any change in the current policy would no doubt lead to greater numbers requesting to immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia.

Since 1994, responsibility for determining eligibility for immigration has become the sole responsibility of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, specifically an official representative of this Ministry in Ethiopia. The Jewish Agency, on the other hand, is responsible for making preparations for immigration and arranging flights for those whose eligibility has been established and approved.

The decision regarding immigration of Falas Mura according to the Law of Entry, however, is subject to the exclusive authority of the Israeli government. The current position of the Jewish Agency is that the criteria for immigration from Ethiopia will be the Law of Return, as is the case for the rest of the world.

It is critical to distinguish between the issue of the Falas Mura and the absorption of those that have already been brought to Israel, which remains a central challenge to the Jewish people and one that we should all address.

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Mike Rosenberg is Director General of the Department of Immigration and Absorption of the Jewish Agency for Israel, responsible for all activities of the Jewish Agency in these areas, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora (including Ethiopia).

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