More than 1,400 members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia will be allowed to immigrate to Israel, whether the State voluntarily agrees or is instead forced to do so by the High Court of Justice.
The immigration to Israel of the Falash Mura has long been a bone of contention much debated by Israeli officials and officials within the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Unlike the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, who lost much Jewish legal knowledge through the centuries of isolation but remained true to their faith, the Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity roughly 100 years ago. Many are practicing Christians and their motivation to convert to Judaism is considered suspect by many in the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Spiritual leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community called in February 2007 for an end to the aliyah (immigration) of the Falash Mura. The Kessim (“Kohanim”) and rabbis said that the arrival of the Falash Mura led to a drastic increase in missionary activities among the Ethiopian community.
According to leaders in the Ethiopian Jewish community, many of the Falash Mura have returned to their practice of Christianity since arriving in Israel. They also do missionary work among Ethiopian Jews. According to the leaders, “the missionary activity crosses red lines, and is likely to incite the community and lead to bloodshed.”
Thousands of Falash Mura claim their Jewish ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, and express the wish to be allowed to convert to Judaism and live in Israel. The state argues that the entire Falash Mura community has already been allowed to apply for Israeli citizenship, while Ethiopian groups argue that thousands more Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia.
A cabinet decision made on February 16, 2003 determined that “the offspring of Ethiopian Jewry from their maternal side who wish to return to Judaism may enter Israel according to the [Law of Return] in order to formally return to Judaism and be reunited with the Jewish people.”
No specific numbers were set, nor was there any decision made on whether family members, with or without Jewish ancestry, would be eligible to immigrate as well. It was not until November 2004 that a government resolution was passed stating that the Interior Ministry would process applications from more than 17,000 Falash Mura who requested permission to immigrate to Israel. Since those applications in 2004, children have been born to the families who were waiting to come to Israel.
Most of those whose applications were reviewed at that time – approximately 14,600 – are already here. Another 1,455 have not yet arrived but are expected soon. According to state attorney Yochi Gnessin, some 650 Falash Mura did not show up for their processing.
Realizing that the flow of Ethiopians fleeing the country’s harsh conditions would never end, the government resolved in 2005 to make a final determination of who was eligible to immigrate to Israel, and who was not.
The list now being used to determine who is still considered eligible to immigrate has 1,413 fewer names than the list compiled in 2004. It is this group of 1,413 would-be immigrants that Justice Ayala Procaccia has said the state must accept into the country.
A separate petition on behalf of 8,000 other would-be immigrants who were allegedly included in a 1999 census but were not deemed eligible will not be considered by the court, said Procaccia.
The state argues that all applications from the estimated 20,811 potential Falash Mura immigrants were processed, and that the state must put an end to Ethiopian aliyah, as there will always be more requests to immigrate to Israel. Opponents argue that the state is unfairly restricting immigration from people of Jewish descent who wish to live as Jews.