Ethiopian civil war sparks resentful debate over immigration to Israel

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JERUSALEM – Surafel Alamo immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 2006 at the age of 12 with his father and a sister. Israeli authorities said two older sisters, who were over 18 at the time, would follow in a month or two. Since then, they have been waiting in a camp for would-be emigrants in Ethiopia.

Now, as Tigrayan rebel forces push south towards the capital, Addis Ababa, where the Ethiopian government has declared a state of emergency, Ethiopian-Israelis like Mr. Alamo are increasingly concerned about to the safety of their loved ones. They are pressuring the Israeli government to extricate thousands of them from the dangers of civil war and end once and for all the trauma of divided families that has lasted for years.

But the fate of the remnants of the community has become mired in resentful disagreements over the urgency of the situation in Ethiopia, the legitimacy of their claims, the number of people eligible for Israeli citizenship and accusations of racism.

Israel has touted its rescues of Ethiopian Jews in the past. The last major operation, in 1991, brought 14,000 of them from camps in Gondar province and Addis Ababa in a secret airlift in 36 hours. Officials say around 5,000 Ethiopians of Jewish descent are now slated for immigration, but there could be thousands more.

Opponents of other family reunification claim that Ethiopian-born Jews and their descendants, many of whom were converted to Christianity by European missionaries in the late 18th century, have already left long ago. Those who now fill the camps are mostly parents of converts with little or no connection to Judaism, they say, and once they immigrate, the parents of the parents will want to come, doing immigration. ‘Ethiopia a never-ending saga.

Many Ethiopian-Israelis and their supporters say that many of those who converted to Christianity did so under duress, and that they remained in separate communities in Ethiopia and maintained their traditions. They accuse their critics and the Israeli government of racism and discrimination, actively encouraging Jewish immigration, known in Hebrew as Aliyah, from richer countries.

“They are Jews, yes, black Jews,” said Mr. Alamo, 26, who served as a paratrooper in the IDF and is now studying political science at the University of Haifa. “Israel must bring them. “

Mr. Alamo’s mother died before he could get to Israel; his father died there. Mr Alamo’s last contact with the sisters in Ethiopia, now aged 35 and 45, was over a month ago, he said, adding that the war had made communication difficult. After years of sending papers to the Israeli Interior Ministry on their behalf, he said their status was still unclear.

“If I’m here, I’m Jewish, am I not? he said. “And them too. “

The question of “who is a Jew” has long been linked to Israel’s immigration policy and its relations with the Diaspora. The ancient and complex history of the Ethiopian Jewish community has posed a particular challenge. The original Jews of Ethiopia, known as “Beta Israel,” or House of Israel, are, according to some traditions, the descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. Israel did not officially recognize their Judaism, making them eligible for automatic citizenship, until the 1970s.

Once the Beta Israel was airlifted, the Israeli government came under pressure to bring in the Christian converts who were waiting in the camps. Known as Falash Mura, a pejorative in Ethiopia, the Israeli authorities called them “Zera Israel”, or the seed of Israel.

At present, the majority of some 150,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent, who make up about 2% of the population, are members of the Zera Israel community, experts say.

Israel has declared the mission to move the remains of the Ethiopian Jewish community ended on several occasions, the most recent in 2013. But two years later, again under pressure, the government said it had decided to bring “the last of the community members waiting in Addis. Ababa and Gondar ”to Israel by 2020.

Applicants must be invited by a first-degree relative in Israel, have arrived at the camps by 2010 at the latest, and commit to undergoing a religious conversion to Judaism once in Israel.

Their number was then estimated at around 9,000. Four thousand have since arrived, including 2,000 last year. This week, the government agreed to speed up the transfer of the remaining 5,000, without specifying a precise timetable.

But the number of those waiting in the camps is now estimated at at least 8,000, at least in part because families have grown in size over the years of waiting.

Confusing the situation further, Israel’s National Security Council has ruled that there is no urgency or need for immediate rescue, even though the Israeli Foreign Ministry has just removed the families of its diplomats. from Addis Ababa and warned the Israelis not to travel to Ethiopia. .

“You cannot play a double game,” Nachman Shai, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, said in an interview, referring to disagreements within the government. “It’s either this or that. Either there is an emergency or there is not. They have to make up their minds.

“My position is to bring them, as soon and as possible,” he added, “and then say that this 40 or 50 year operation is over.”

Israeli Immigration and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano Shata, herself a member of Beta Israel, has championed the cause of those who remain on behalf of her main constituency. Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, the country’s conservative guardian, is more cautious and is reviewing Ethiopian immigration criteria.

Another setback came with the emergence in Israeli media this week of a murky story about a group of 61 Ethiopians, mostly Tigrayans, who were secretly brought from Sudan to Israel in July. It was done at the request of a member of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, amid claims that their lives were in danger.

An August Home Office document reviewed by the New York Times said the 61 do not appear to have any clear family ties to Israel, and in most cases no connection to Judaism, and that they do not had not been in danger but had simply exploited the system. .

Activists questioned the timing of the leak, saying it was intended to undermine efforts to bring the remnants of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel.

“It’s a trick,” said Uri Perednik, president of a non-profit organization called the Ethiopian Jews’ Struggle for Aliyah. “This group has nothing to do with the communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar. “

Yet the civil war has reopened the debate over the Ethiopian immigration saga to Israel.

“There is no end,” said Ben-Dror Yemini, a prominent columnist for Yediot Ahronot, the popular Hebrew daily, who has critically written on the subject, calling the prosecution of immigration a fraud. “After those 10,000, there will be another 10,000 with first-degree relatives, and then more parents of relatives,” he said in an interview.

Yemini added that he was giving the floor to frustrated members of the first Beta Israel. He described the intentions of those pushing for Ethiopians, including American Jewish groups, as well-meaning but misplaced, and the conduct of successive Israeli governments as reckless, saying they have repeatedly bowed to calls. and emotional protests over the years.

New events are planned for Sunday.

“This aliyah has always been subject to wars and disputes,” said Aschalo Abebe, 36, a cleaning contractor and social activist who arrived in Israel in 2002. He said he only recently discovered relatives of his mother who were waiting in the camps and are eligible for immigration, because their grandfather was Jewish.

“I worry day and night,” he said, adding of the government, “They shouldn’t wait for disaster to happen.”

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