Israel welcomes last Ethiopians of Jewish descent

After years of languishing in makeshift shelters in the Horn of Africa, the final remnants of an Ethiopian community claiming Jewish descent received permission Sunday to move to Israel.

Israel's Cabinet voted to allow 7,846 Ethiopians to immigrate to the Jewish state over the next four years — announcing it would open its gates to Ethiopian immigration one last time, taking them in gradually to give them the best chance of acclimating to their new home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet, "We have a moral commitment as Jews, as the people of Israel, to find a solution" for the Ethiopians, many of whom have relatives in Israel.

Eight thousand Ethiopian Jews were spirited to Israel in 1984 and another 14,000 in 1990 in secret airlifts. Thousands more have arrived on their own.

Since 1990, however, most Ethiopians moving to Israel have been Falash Mura, a community whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity under duress about 100 years ago to avoid discrimination, but kept some Jewish customs. About 40,000 Falash Mura live in Israel.

Israel initially rejected their ties to Judaism, but religious officials later declared them the "seed of Israel." Falash Mura were formally converted to Orthodox Judaism upon their arrival in Israel, bringing the total number of Ethiopian immigrants to about 85,000. In comparison, about 100,000 immigrants from North America live in Israel.

After the last of the recognized members of the community left the Ethiopian village of Gondor in 2008, more Ethiopians came forward and claimed that they, too, were Falash Mura. Israel had initially prevented them from immigrating, doubting the validity of their claims and suspecting that their real motivation was to escape Ethiopia for a better life.

Under Sunday's decision, they will be allowed to come to Israel in monthly increments over the next four years.

"This is an ethical, Jewish, humanitarian and Zionist decision ... to bring justice to those Jewish brothers still waiting to return and connect to the Jewish people in its land," said a statement from the Public Committee for the Remainder of the Ethiopian Jews, an Israeli advocacy group.

The 7,846 registered Falash Mura awaiting immigration live in makeshift shelters in Gondor and receive food and medical services from a North American Jewish aid group. Netanyahu called it "a complex humanitarian crisis" and said Israel wished to "avoid the creation of additional refugee camps in Ethiopia."

Many Ethiopian immigrants, from rural African settings, have had a particularly hard time acclimating to Israel's modern, fast-paced society. They have relatively high rates of poverty and crime, and they face discrimination from other Israelis.

The semi-governmental Jewish Agency has pledged $4.7 million to assist the Falash Mura, the organization's spokesman, Michael Jankelowitz, said. The group will teach Hebrew and instruct the immigrants in acculturating to Israeli society before they leave for Israel.

Once they arrive in Israel, he said, the Jewish Agency will house the immigrants in 30 centers throughout the country.

"This saga has to be ended," Jankelowitz said.