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Israelis, Jewish Groups Talk Numbers and Dollars on Falash Mura
Rachel Pomerance

JTA Focus StoryNEW YORK, Nov. 26 (JTA) -- As Israel takes steps to bring some 20,000 Falash Mura to Israel from Ethiopia, the Jewish state is looking to American Jewry to help pay the tab.

The latest moves in the saga of the Falash Mura -- Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity but who since have resumed practicing Judaism -- comes in the wake of increased lobbying by officials from U.S. Jewish federations, Jewish humanitarian groups and Ethiopian Jewry advocates.

Last week, the Israeli government official responsible for bringing the Falash Mura to Israel outlined a plan to implement a February Cabinet decision to bring them, but concerned parties are viewing it cautiously.

Advocates for the Ethiopians want Israel to accelerate the aliyah process, especially in light of the ongoing famine in Ethiopia.

Israel has been bringing Falash Mura to the Jewish state at a rate of about 2,500 per year.

Earlier this month, Israel's Supreme Court called on the government -- and the Interior Ministry in particular -- to explain its delay in implementing the February decision.

The government also is under pressure from Falash Mura in Israel, who stage frequent protests demanding that the government bring family members left in Ethiopia to Israel.

Recently, some American Jews have taken up their cry.

Before the General Assembly of the North American federation system earlier this month, a delegation of federation leaders traveled to Ethiopia to assess the situation on the ground.

As General Assembly delegates met in Jerusalem, Knesset members convened to discuss the Falash Mura.

The Knesset discussion came amid talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the president of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, Stephen Hoffman, on how the federation system could aid in their absorption.

In the Knesset discussion, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz said Israel would provide entry by the end of 2004 to Falash Mura who qualify as immigrants under the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. Poraz also said that by June 30, 2005, Israel would allow immigration of any Falash Mura with immediate family living in Israel.

The cost of immigration and absorption, and the number of Falash Mura eligible for aliyah, are at the heart of the government's delay in implementing the February Cabinet decision, observers say.

Worried that Israel faces an influx of an unknown number of Ethiopians seeking to flee a famine-stricken country, Poraz at the Knesset discussion capped the list of Falash Mura slated for emigration at 22,000, the amount counted by a census taken five years ago. Many of those 22,000 already have emigrated to Israel.

Poraz also demanded that the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ, which along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides services to Falash Mura relief compounds in Ethiopia, shut down its operations by March 31, 2004. At that time, administration of the compounds would come under control of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Additionally, Poraz asked American Jews to help pay for the Falash Mura's immigration and absorption, which he estimated at a lifetime cost of $100,000 per person.

"The government will turn to Jewish organizations internationally, and primarily in the United States, including those that preach to us day and night about why we're not bringing the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel, to raise funds and to assist in the absorption of the Ethiopian Jews," Poraz said.

Some Ethiopia advocates object to Poraz's proposal.

They say it would not bring all the Falash Mura to Israel, as required by the February resolution.

It also does not provide a timetable for immigration, or for checking the Ethiopians' Jewish ancestry, they say. Israel's Chief Rabbinate, and all three major religious denominations in the United States, have affirmed that the Falash Mura are Jews, but the Jewish identification of those who have come to the compounds still needs to be verified.

Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of NACOEJ, said it is "distressing" for NACOEJ to be asked to shut down its Ethiopia operations.

The recent Knesset discussion follows a meeting last month between Hoffman, Poraz, Ethiopia advocates and others in which the parties agreed to consider a deal in which the number of Falash Mura eligible for immigration would be capped and U.S. Jewish groups would help pay for their absorption.

It is not clear how the project would be funded on the federation end of things. A UJC project several years ago to raise money for Ethiopian absorption gained little traction.

The issue is not on the agenda of the Dec. 8 UJC committee meeting on overseas allocations, according to Steven Klinghoffer, chair of UJC's Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee.

"No one has assumed the financial responsibility for this operation," said Yechiel Eckstein, the Jewish Agency's representative to the discussions. "Everyone is passing the buck."

What's more, the issue of the Falash Mura arouses ambivalence and controversy among Jews around the world.

Some consider the claims to Jewish heritage by these Falash Mura specious. They point out that in 1998 announcements were made that Israel was bringing the last 4,000 Falash Mura to the Jewish state, but then thousands more Ethiopians turned out at the compounds claiming Jewish heritage.

According to Eckstein, Poraz is preparing a recommendation on the Falash Mura to present to a Cabinet committee in the next month or two, once he has secured funding sources and determined the number of Falash Mura eligible for aliyah.

Some critics say Israel's foot-dragging on the issue is a sign of racism or class-based prejudice, since the Jewish state readily welcomes massive numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Regardless of whether or not the Falash Mura left in Ethiopia are Jewish, the fact that many of their immediate family members now live in Israel makes their emigration to the Jewish state a humanitarian issue, some say.

Feakdu Takle, 22, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia three years ago, and he has not seen his parents since. Takle, who just finished his army duty, said he is deeply frustrated that "the state that I am defending" will not bring his parents to Israel.

"This is our place. This is the home for all Jews and my parents are Jews," he says, his voice breaking into tears. "I will continue to struggle until all my family come home."

Returning to Ethiopia is not an option for Takle. Dressed in a tight T-shirt and low-slung jeans, he looks like a typical Israeli. And recently he give his baby daughter an Israeli name, Ora.

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