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Waiting Falash Mura languish in squalor

Thousands of Ethiopian former Jews have been waiting more than 10 years in disease-ridden camps in Ethiopia for the Israeli government to take them to Israel, NGOs say.

About 16,000 of the Falash Mura – Jews who converted to Christianity, and some who reverted back - live in squalid conditions in immigration compounds in the capital, Addis Ababa, the city of Gondar in north-western Ethiopia, and in villages.

In these compounds, tuberculosis and hepatitis are rife and children routinely die of preventable diseases such as measles, according to Falash Mura who have made it to Israel and specialists who have visited them.

“It’s basically a refugee camp without running water or toilet facilities. It’s overcrowded, there’s open sewage. Their diet is lacking in fruit, vegetables and dairy products. It must be stopped,” said Ravit Cohen, an Israeli anthropologist who recently visited Gondar.

The Falash Mura abandoned their homes many years ago in the hope of qualifying to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish state’s 1950 Law of Return – which grants any person with at least one Jewish grandparent the right to Israeli citizenship.

Representatives of the Falash Mura say they have been left to rot in Ethiopia because the Israeli government does not view them as real Jews.

“These people are kept in a transitory state, they are prone to diseases that can easily be treated in Israel and also to harsh treatment from the local Christians. On my last trip to Ethiopia I witnessed the death of a five-year-old child from measles,” said Avshalom Elizur, chairman of the Committee for the Falash Mura.

Outright racism

“This is a clear violation of human rights and constitutes outright racism. More than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel over the past 10 years, yet no one questions their Judaism. I believe this is down to skin colour,” he added.

The Falash Mura are of Jewish descent, but they converted to Christianity after suffering persecution and being targeted by missionaries.

The group was cast out from Ethiopian Jewry yet did not assimilate into Ethiopian Christian society. The claims of those who say they are Falash Mura have been questioned both in Ethiopia and Israel.

In 1978, when the Falasha or Beta Israel – Ethiopian Jews – began to immigrate to Israel, the Falash Mura community came forward and asked to immigrate too – sparking controversy over their claim to Jewish descent.

Matters came to a head in May 1991, just days before rebel forces overthrew the government of Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam. Israel sent a fleet of 32 aircraft stripped of their seating to evacuate 14,400 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa.

Photo: Jewish Agency for Israel
A Falash Mura boy sits in front of a sign saying "Hey, it's your turn to play... move to Israel" in an Addis Ababa immigration compound

But before the rescue operation, the government of the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to leave behind the Falash Mura.

Israel’s rabbinical court later accepted their claims to being Jewish and in 1993, following pressure from the Ethiopian community in Israel, the government allowed the Falash Mura to immigrate, providing they had direct relatives in Israel, such as parents, siblings or grandparents.

A trickle of Falash Mura has been arriving in Israel at a rate of 300 a month for the past 14 years. They now make up about 40 per cent of the 110,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Now, campaigners are asking why the Israeli government cannot simply bring all the remaining Falash Mura to Israel in one go.

A humanitarian issue

“These people are Jews and must be brought here to be reunited with their families, this is a humanitarian issue. I cannot understand why the Israeli government has dragged its feet for the past 14 years,” said Avraham Negussie, founder of the South Wing to Zion NGO.

While about 7,000 Falash Mura have been approved to immigrate to Israel, some 9,000 living in villages have been denied immigration permits.

“Three lists of families were handed to the [Israeli] government in 2003, Gondar, Addis Ababa and the villages. For some reason the government chose to accept only the Gondar and Addis lists. Some office clerk decided the fate of 9,000 people. This is what we’re fighting about and we will not cease until these people are given fair treatment,” said Negussie.

''These people are Jews and must be brought here to be reunited with their families, this is a humanitarian issue. I cannot understand why the Israeli government has dragged its feet for the past 14 years.''

His organisation and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) have appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court in a bid to force the government to act.

For its part, the Israeli government in January voted to reduce the budget for bringing the Falash Mura to Israel, which appeared to contradict earlier promises to increase the monthly immigration quota.

But Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad promised the 7,000 Falash Mura selected for immigration would soon be brought to Israel. “There are 6,899 Falash Mura in Addis and Gondar and their requests are being processed. Those eligible will be brought to Israel in the very near future,” she said.

“Those in Addis who are not eligible were notified by special messengers. Sadly, the messengers did not manage to deliver these letters, but we will notify the families.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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