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May 2000, Volume 7, Number 5

Israel: Law of Return

About one million persons emigrated from the ex-USSR to Israel between 1989 and 1999, including 200,000 who were not halakhically Jewish because their mothers were not Jewish. These 200,000 were eligible for citizenship and financial assistance under the Law of Return - which opens Israel's doors to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.

The government of Israel has brought tens of thousands of Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity and their descendents, to Israel over the past 20 years, which has resulted in an irreversible migration. In 1992, 14,000 were airlifted to Israel in a 36-hour operation. In 1997, the Israeli government took in some in a humanitarian gesture that the government hoped would end the migration. Instead, word spread among the Falash Mura, that if they went to Addis Ababa, the Israeli government would move them to Israel.

During an April 2000 visit to Ethiopia, Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky promised to help the Falash Mura, by accelerating the processing their applications. In recent years, 18,000 Falash Mura have left their homes for refugee camps in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar in anticipation of moving to Israel. Approval will be based on the Law of Return, which gives the legal right to immigrate to those with Jewish parents or grandparents. Criteria for reunifying families has yet to be established.

Some advocates for the Ethiopian Jews say that the slow processing of their applications was because they are "poor and black." Their absorption costs Israel a lot of money in stipends and social services, and many Israelis oppose the immigration of a group they consider to be non-Jewish.

Israel is asking US Jews to donate $50 million to help settle new immigrants, including the Falash Mura. Some say there are only 26,000 Falash Mura left in Ethiopia, but others believe that number is in the hundreds of thousands, because many converted to Christianity over the past century.

Sari Bashi, "Ethiopians Wait Long to Immigrate," AP, April 17, 2000.