Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem (illustration)
Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem (illustration)Flash 90

Hundreds of Ethiopian Jews marched in Jerusalem on Sunday after the government canceled plans to allow their relatives to make Aliyah from the African nation, with many calling the move discrimination.

The government in November voted to allow the immigration of some 9,100 Ethiopians known as Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, many under duress, in the 18th and 19th centuries CE.

But on March 7, an official from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office informed members of Knesset the decision would not be implemented because of budgetary constraints.

Bringing Ethiopian Jews back to Israel requires clarifying their Halakhic (Jewish legal) status in what has proven to be a trying process, although critics note many of the same Halakhic problems hold true for Russian immigrants who nevertheless were let in to Israel en masse in the early 1990s.

Police and organizers estimated the crowd at up to 2,000 people for Sunday's march, which ended outside Netanyahu's office.

"Stop the suffering, stop the discrimination, stop the racism," demonstrators chanted, holding signs bearing similar slogans as well as pictures of relatives left behind in Ethiopia.

"Our children, our parents are in Ethiopia," they chanted, marching alongside elderly residents wearing more traditional garb, some leaning on canes.

Antaihe Cheol, a 30-year-old resident of northern Israel, said his father and brother have been waiting to immigrate for 20 years. "This is simply discrimination," he told AFP.

His friend Ashebo noted that the government actively encourages immigration of Jews from France, the United States and Russia. "When it comes to Jews from Ethiopia - everyone refuses," he said. "It's embarrassing."

Netanyahu's office said it was working on bringing to Israel "elderly, solitary and dependent Falash Mura to ease their condition."

But "the latest amendment to the budget law does not enable the government to take upon itself significant budgetary commitments to upcoming years, without regulating fiscal sources," a statement read.

The issue will be discussed in the coming months as part of the budget discussions, the premier's office said.

Netanyahu's office considers reuniting Falash Mura families an issue "of humane and social importance."

Leading the demonstration was MK Avraham Neguise, himself an immigrant from Ethiopia and a member of Netanyahu's Likud party.

Along with MK David Amsalem (Likud), Neguise has boycotted all parliamentary votes since being told the government was walking back its November decision, and reiterated on Sunday he would continue doing so until the decree was reversed.

Netanyahu's coalition holds only a one-seat majority in parliament.

Revital Swid, a lawmaker from the opposition Zionist Union, also accused the government of discrimination.

"Would the government tell even one Jew from Russia, or Europe, or America who had family in Israel, we don't have the money to bring you here?" she asked ahead of the march.

Israel's Ethiopian community includes some 135,000 people.

Israel brought the bulk of Ethiopia's Jewish community to the country between 1984 and 1991 under the Law of Return guaranteeing citizenship to all Jews. Given that the Falash Mura need to clarify their Halakhic status as Jews, the law does not apply to them.

AFP contributed to this report.