The cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved an Interior Ministry proposal to resume aliya from Ethiopia, which was suspended in 2013.
Around 9,000 people have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar transit camps for the past several years in the hopes of making their way to the Jewish state. However, Jerusalem closed its doors in 2013 following a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport at which officials declared the “end” of Ethiopian aliya.
The fate of the prospective immigrants has been a matter of some debate, with Ethiopian-Israeli activists protesting what they saw as the breaking up of families.
When Ethiopian aliya officially ended, supporters of the decision, such as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund chairman Eliezer Sandberg, described a radically different situation than that portrayed by the activists. He called those left in Ethiopia gentile relations of Ethiopians in Israel.
“I believe we all have relatives of relatives of relatives who don’t [meet] the criteria [for aliya]. I think it’s a mistake to blend together the joy of the return and the closing of the operation from Ethiopia with the personal issues of some people,” Sandberg told The Jerusalem Post in 2013.
According to Sunday’s cabinet decision, any Ethiopian who moved to Gondar or Addis Ababa after January 2013, is willing to convert to Judaism and has relatives here who can apply for his acceptance, will be eligible to move.
“The main criteria to receive an entry permit to Israel, in accordance with the decisions of the previous governments, were that [the olim] are descended from Ethiopian Jews on their mothers’ side, and that they appear on one of the lists attached to the government decisions in question. Upon completing these government decisions, it turns out that many families from the Ethiopian community were split up. Some members are in Israel, while others remain in Ethiopia,” a copy of the proposal leaked to the press last week explained.
In a statement to the press on Sunday, the Interior Ministry said that a committee composed of representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Population and Immigration Authority, the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Jewish Agency will be in charge of examining applicants’ eligibility.
Interior Minister Silvan Shalom described the cabinet’s move as “a significant decision that will bring the last descendants of Ethiopian Jews and will unite them with their families in Israel.”
Shalom has been pushing for renewed Ethiopian immigration for some time, stating in the Knesset in July that he intended to bring to Israel between 6,000 and 7,000 people during his tenure.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise praised the decision, saying that it was “an important step that will enable the unification of Ethiopian families who are in the country, some of which have been split over the years.
“This is the second time during my time as prime minister that we pass a resolution for the sake of bringing in members of communities with an affinity to Israel. This is an important issue and we will continue to promote it,” he said.
Ethiopian-Israeli MK Abraham Naguise, one of the primary lobbyists for Ethiopian aliya, praised the decision, calling Sunday a “great day for the Jewish people.
“I congratulate the prime minister and the interior minister on this historic and meaningful decision for Ethiopian Jewry and their families in Israel. For thousands of years, Ethiopian Jews prayed to immigrate to Israel, and [many have] waited for nearly a decade, painfully torn from their families. Today their prayers were answered.”
Speaking with the Post last week, Naguise said, “More than 85 percent of [those left behind in Ethiopia] have first degree family in Israel – parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
“They must be brought to Israel and reunited with their families. They are an undivided part of our community.”
The requirements of the new aliya program give off a “foul odor of racism and disrespect,” complained Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova Sunday evening, stating that she believed that it would lead to protests by the Ethiopian community in Israel.
“Who wrote the list in 2013? What were his criteria,” she asked, intimating that the current system being set up for vetting immigrants was broken and stating that if people had previously applied to move here there would be no reason for them to apply again.
During the most recent Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem last month, Director of Aliya and Absorption Yehuda Scharf said that pending a government decision on those remaining in Ethiopia, it would be possible to reopen aliya from that country almost immediately.
Within hours of the cabinet decision, agency chairman Natan Sharansky said his organization “stands ready to implement the government’s decision in the swiftest and most efficient way possible, and we look forward to helping bring the families currently waiting in Ethiopia home to Israel.”
The Jewish Agency still employs a number of locals in Ethiopia and maintains a roving emissary who will be returning there shortly, an agency spokesman said.
And while it will take several months until Ethiopians begin arriving due to the necessity of waiting for a list of approved immigrants, Scharf told the Post that once it gets the go-ahead, the Jewish Agency will be able to reopen its facilities in Gondar in less than a day.
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