Joseph J. Feit

Time to bring them home

Netanyahu must stop playing petty politics and rescue the last remnant of Ethiopian Jewry

Two of Israel’s right wing newspapers, Maariv and Yisrael Hayom, tell an astonishing story. Prime Minister Netanyahu is threatening to remove MK Dr. Avraham Neguise from his position as Chairman of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee or otherwise punish him severely. Why? Seemingly, Mr. Netanyahu believes it is a high crime for the only Ethiopian member of Knesset to try to rectify an injustice perpetrated by the Prime Minister against thousands of Ethiopian Jews.

Is the Prime Minister a racist? I don’t think so, though there are members of the Ethiopian Jewish community who disagree. Are his tactics reminiscent of those employed by segregationists in the 50s and 60s, which stifled legitimate protests by abusing governmental power? Look at the facts and judge for yourself.

Fourteen-thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon (1991). Some were left behind despite appeals by then Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and his predecessor HaRav Ovadiah Yosef. Over the past 25 years, 50,000 members of this group have made aliyah. Maternally descended from Ethiopian Jews who allegedly converted in the past, they practiced Orthodox Judaism in Ethiopia for years, observing the laws of the Sabbath, kashrut, ritual purity and reciting thrice daily prayers. Virtually all completed the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion course after arriving in Israel; 75% of their children attend Orthodox religious schools as opposed to 20% of Israel’s general population.

Their aliyah required relentless advocacy and endless patience. Nevertheless, Ethiopian Jews used only the peaceful democratic methods of protest and petition. Among their strongest supporters were the Haredi party Shas, the National Religious Party, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and the eminent former President of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar.

Approximately 9,000 members of the group remain behind in Ethiopia — 70% of whom have first-degree relatives in Israel. They are identical in religious observance to those who have already been reunited with their families in Israel. Though only paternally linked to the Beta Israel, it is crystal clear that they, like their brethren, would willingly undergo conversion in Israel. Internally displaced refugees — having left their villages for Addis Ababa and Gondar years ago — they live in wretched conditions. A peer reviewed article five years ago found that 61% of their children were malnourished.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has exclusive control over the cabinet agenda. For years, he used this power to prevent consideration of a resolution to end this inhumane situation. In despair, their voices unheard, MKs Neguise and Amsalem threatened to withhold political support from the coalition (which only has a 61-59 majority). Consequently, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally permitted the matter to be considered by the government. On November 15, 2015 the cabinet (including Haredi Ministers) unanimously voted to bring the 9,000 Beta Israel to Israel over a period of up to five years. This length of time was unconscionably long, but the MKs accepted the resolution as the best achievable, given the Prime Minister’s opposition to further aliyah from Ethiopia.

Three months passed. In February, only three weeks before aliyah was to commence, the Prime Minister’s office suddenly “discovered” a recently passed piece of legislation that they said precluded the resolution’s implementation. But the budgetary Law of the Numerator they invoked was passed after the government resolution. By its terms, it went into effect still later, i.e., January 2016, for budgets commencing in 2017. There is no restriction at all for 2016. The government’s own figures presented to the Knesset showed 2016 expenditures below 15 million dollars; Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks to Likud MKs that recent defense-related costs preclude aliyah in 2016 are absurd.

The government has not applied the law retroactively to other resolutions passed the same day as the Ethiopian resolution. It’s no wonder the Prime Minister’s office did not consult with Legal Advisor Mandelblitt before issuing its erroneous legal interpretation.

Freezing aliyah gave rise to a firestorm. Ashkenazi Haredi MK Moshe Gafni, told the press that if the law applied retroactively, it had to be changed. More than 2,000 Ethiopians demonstrated in front of the Prime Minister’s office. And MKs Neguise and Amsalem decided to protest by abstaining from all Knesset votes until the Prime Minister implemented the decision

It’s for this protest that Mr. Netanyahu wants to punish Dr. Neguise. I’m not kidding. In his world, it is a crime to faithfully represent the Ethiopian Jewish community, courageously object to violations of law and use whatever meager political resources while being ignored for years, and then betrayed. Prime Minister Netanyahu invokes the sanctity of coalition discipline, but the key to its restoration is in his hands; all he needs to do is implement the decision as required by law.

By punishing Dr. Neguise — a patient man who started life as a shepherd and earned a BA, 2 MAs, a doctorate and a law license — isn’t Mr. Netanyahu sending a message that Ethiopian Jews who rises too high will be slapped down?

It’s past time to end the endless misery and bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews home.

About the Author
Joseph Feit, an attorney, is currently chairman of SSEJ and a past president of NACOEJ. He is a past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and has been active on issues relating to Ethiopian Jewry for three decades. Feit has received awards from the Knesset, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar for his work on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
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