Out of Africa? Not Yet

Amiram Barkat, Haaretz.com, Jul. 23

An unusual entourage arrived at the Jewish Agency absorption center at Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem, last week. The center, whose occupants are new immigrants from the Falash Mura—Ethiopians whose ancestors were Jews—hosted Cameron Kerry, the brother of Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Kerry and his wife came to the center after the obligatory visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, accompanied by a nattily dressed group of security men, Democratic Party election advisers and lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.

The AIPAC people, who organized Kerry’s itinerary in Israel, explained that the choice of the Mevasseret absorption center was arbitrary and due to the fact that it was close to other sites on the itinerary. However, Shlomo Mula, the host on behalf of the Jewish Agency, had a slightly different explanation. “Already from the United States, they [AIPAC] asked us to organize them a visit to the Ethiopians,” he said.

Kerry was the epitome of correctness throughout the visit. He spoke with the immigrants’ representatives, observed a Hebrew lesson for adults and spent time with the children in a computer class. The only time the Kerrys seemed to be moved was when they bent over to shake hands with a little boy wearing a skullcap, who came over to ask how they were. It hardly needs to be said that this touching moment was commemorated by the photographer invited by the hosts.

“From the hasbara [publicity] viewpoint, the absorption of the Ethiopians is one of the best stories Israel has to offer,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in the United States. “It shows that there are also non-white Jews and that Israel is the only country ready to absorb people who live in Third World conditions. It makes an excellent impression in the States, especially in liberal circles.”

Yet sometimes it seems that the Israeli establishment—government ministries and, to a lesser extent, the Agency—are as repelled by the idea of the Falashmura being photographed as the Jewish establishment in the U.S. is charmed by the idea. About three weeks ago, a chartered Ethiopian plane landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport carrying 268 new immigrants from Ethiopia. The spokesmen of the Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry are punctilious about informing reporters and photographers a few days in advance about the arrival of planeloads of new immigrants from France and the U.S. In the case of the Ethiopian plane, only non-Hebrew media people were informed. A few Israeli photographers, who heard about the event from foreign correspondents, tried to approach the plane and photograph the new arrivals. The airport authorities blocked them, on the grounds that the coverage hadn’t been coordinated with the Agency spokesman.

“We wanted to prevent the mistaken impression that we are on the brink of a new wave of immigration from Ethiopia,” explains the spokesman of one of the major absorption bodies. An Israeli hasbara official said the concern is that there will be a negative reaction to such images among the Israeli public. “The last thing we need is for people to start saying, ‘They don’t have any place left to bring new immigrants from, so they’re bringing us Blacks from Africa.’”

Camps refilling

The involvement of the Jewish establishment in the U.S. in the Falashmura affair goes beyond producing PR photos for VIPs. Every year the United Jewish Communities (UJC) in the U.S. deals with obtaining funds to absorb Falashmura as part of the U.S. Congress aid program for refugees. This year, for example, Congress allocated $50 million for the absorption of “refugees” from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union. The money was transferred to the Jewish Agency via the UJC.

Another aspect, equally significant, is Jewish-American activity in Ethiopia itself. A Jewish-American organization called North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) has for years been administering the compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where some 20,000 Falashmura are waiting to come to Israel. The Israelis consider NACOEJ responsible for the fact that the camps refill whenever Falashmura leave for Israel. The organization, which has recently encountered financing problems, has excellent connections in the communal establishment of American Jewry.

The subject of the Falashmura was raised by the leaders of the Jewish community in every meeting with the prime minister and members of the cabinet, within the framework of the government-Jewish Agency coordination committee. The Americans consistently requested that the pace of bringing the Falashmura to Israel be speeded up. The recurring reply was that Israel was incapable of underwriting a project of that magnitude by itself, and that absorption of an increased number of immigrants would be beyond the capabilities of the existing authorities in Israel.

What mainly underlies the Israeli attitude is the feeling that this is an immigration that will never end. In 1998, Natan Sharansky headed a ministerial committee that decided to bring to Israel about 4,000 members of the Falashmura, who were then in camps in Ethiopia. “I decided to bring them based on humanitarian considerations and only after I received commitments from the American organizations that this would be the end of the story. Already then people told me I was naive, and today I admit that I made a mistake.”

Compounding the situation is the fact that the only ones capable of promising that there will be an end to the Falashmura immigration are the Americans, and more specifically the NACOEJ activists who are in Ethiopia.

In February 2003, the government decided to bring to Israel all the offspring of Jewish mothers, a total of about 20,000 people according to the estimates. However, shortly afterward a new government took power and the plans were frozen. Last November, Steve Hoffman, the outgoing CEO of UJC, came to Israel with a proposal for a deal. In return for Israel absorbing up to 24,000 Falashmura with a period of two years, administration of the compounds would be transferred to the Jewish Agency, which would be able to shut them down. The Israelis balked.

Last winter, following a tour of Ethiopia by a delegation headed by the director general of the Jewish Agency, Giora Rom, a decision was made to draw up a reduced list of 14,000-16,000 Falashmura, by name, who would be eligible to immigrate to Israel. The ministerial committee for Falash Mura affairs resolved that they and they alone would come to Israel.

NACOEJ hasn’t yet decided how to respond to Israel’s unilateral move. “We support every decision to bring the Falash Mura to Israel,” a source close to the organization said. “But if the decision will be implemented slowly, we will not be able to prevent members of the Falash Mura from the villages from refilling the compounds.”

The Interior Ministry’s Population Registry finished drawing up the list of names a month and a half ago. Since then an official of the ministry had been interviewing the Falashmura in Ethiopia, at the rate of 250 people a week, and issuing visas to Israel. However, even though the bureaucratic obstacles have been removed, Israel refuses to step up the rate of immigration. That rate is about 300 a month, or 3,600 a year. If no change takes place, it will take about five years for all those currently on the list of eligible immigrants to arrive.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met last month with a delegation of Jewish community leaders from the U.S., said the government will not discuss this subject again before the end of the current fiscal year.

‘Go-slow approach’

Officials of UJC-North America find it difficult to understand how the government can formally adopt a policy of foot-dragging in the implementation of its own decisions. “I understand and accept the argument that you have budgetary difficulties,” says the president of UCJ, Robert Goldberg. “But if you’ve already decided to bring them, then why are you waiting? Bring ‘em!”

Goldberg, who is considered one of the most pro-Israel of the heads of the UJC, adds that in his view the Falash Mura are “positive and good people.” In his view, “even if you have to invest a great deal in them in the first generation, it will be worth your while. In my view, they are more deserving to be Israelis than many of the Israelis I know.”

In the light of their inability to understand the motives of the Israelis, the feeling is growing among Jews in the U.S. that the Falash Mura are being discriminated against for other—racist—reasons.

“The non-Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. are telling us openly today that its racism,” says attorney Yitzhak Dasa, from an association that provides legal aid to Israelis of Ethiopian origin. “The attitude among the Orthodox is different for the time being. They are less critical of the Israeli establishment.”

However, the top echelons of the American Jewish leadership have no compunctions about talking about Israel in a manner that Jewish leaders never dared to use in the past. Israeli policy toward the Falash Mura is morally inadmissible, Steve Hoffman said recently. Nor did he make do only with words: The UJC has formed an official task force to highlight the issues of the Falash Mura, Hoffman says, “to mainstream the concern in the American Jewish Community and to regularly seek to speak to the Israeli government and to members of the U.S. Congress and other government officials to enlist their help in speaking to the Israeli government. We will make sure that everyone sees what is happening here and let them try to understand the go-slow approach of the Israeli government.”

What especially irks the American Jews is the standing Israeli contention of a budgetary shortfall, which is almost always accompanied by a request for financial aid. The Americans complain that they spend their time in petty squabbling with the Israelis. For example, in a meeting with absorption officials last week, the Americans asked whether money to absorb Falash Mura hadn’t become available in the wake of the steep decline in the expected number of new immigrants to Israel. “It’s true that money has become available,” was the response, “but we are earmarking it for the expected wave of immigration from France.”

Beyond this, however, it turns out that the Israelis are deliberately issuing exaggerated estimates of the costs of absorption, or at least are floating sums that have little connection with reality. In meetings of the coordination committee, the Jewish Agency treasurer, Shai Hermesh, reiterated the estimate that it costs $100,000 to absorb each member of the Falash Mura community, or a total of $2 billion altogether. That figure has already been accepted as an unofficial estimate of the absorption costs, even though officials in the Finance Ministry confirmed this week that it has no basis. “We have been trying to reach an agreed estimate with the Absorption Ministry for a few months, but so far without success,” a spokeswoman for the treasury said.

It turns out, though, that even as the Jewish Agency treasurer was telling the Americans that the cost of absorption is $100,000 per capita, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive was providing a completely different figure to the interior minister. In a letter of November 2003, a copy of which was made available to Haaretz, Salai Meridor informed Avraham Poraz that “regarding the participation of world Jewry in funding the costs—it is important. Suggest not noting the cost because it’s sensitive in principle and because in the first years the cost, in my evaluation, will not exceed $40,000 (including the purchase of a home for life). Without the purchase of a home (but only underwriting rent) the cost for the first three years could be $20,000 per immigrant.”

The patronizing side

Israeli politicians have so far reacted without undue emotion to the mounting criticism within the UJC. “They can get stuffed,” an Israeli cabinet minister said this week in response to the contentions leveled against him by American activists for the Falash Mura.

“The Americans have no right to preach to us,” says Natan Sharansky, the minister for Diaspora affairs. “For the past 10 years I have been asking them to absorb a small group of Falash Mura in the U.S. as a symbolic act of partnership, but they refuse. In my eyes, to come and level criticism at Israel is hypocrisy.”

Hoffman says that asking the Americans to absorb the Falash Mura in the U.S. is patronizing and anti-Zionist. “After all, they [the Falash Mura] don’t even want to come to the U.S., only to Israel. When did Zionist end with you people?” he asks.

In the disagreement between Hoffman and Sharansky, attorney Dasa sides with the American. “It’s clear that Sharansky is the patronizing one here,” he says. “The Falash Mura want to come to Israel, first because it is the Holy Land, and second because their families are here. Next time, Sharansky should ask them before he speaks.”

The spokesman of the Jewish Agency, Yarden Vatikai, says in response that the divergent estimates of Salai Meridor and Shai Hermesh are not contradictory, because “the treasurer’s appraisal is a rough estimate that refers to general costs, such as the fact that many of the Falash Mura are single mothers, which generates very high, long-term welfare expenditures.”

As for denying photographers access to arriving Falash Mura at the airport, the spokesman says that the Agency does not decide who will enter the terminal. Vatikai explained that no announcement about the plane’s arrival was made to journalists because it was not a newsworthy event. “The Falash Mura,” he says, “were not brought as part of a special operation, but within the framework of ‘closing gaps’ after it turned out that in the previous months the rate of arrival was lower than 300 due to bureaucratic delays.”

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