Israel opens door to more Ethiopians despite embarrassing revelations

Earlier arrivals from African nation have no Jewish links, and may be war crime suspects

Israel agreed on Tuesday to expedite the immigration of 5,000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish descent from the war-torn country despite embarrassing revelations that others who arrived in recent weeks were suspected war criminals with no Jewish links.

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed told his Israeli counterpart, Naftali Bennett, in an angry phone call that some of the people who had been airlifted to Israel were suspected of war crimes perpetrated by rebel forces, and had fled from Ethiopia in the airlift.

Furthermore, an investigation by the Israeli immigration authorities revealed that most of the new arrivals had lied about their Jewish roots and were not from areas in immediate danger from the fighting. In what they called a “planned conspiracy that exploited the system”, it was found that 53 out of 61 people who arrived from Ethiopia recently came at the request of a private Israeli citizen, who wanted to bring his ex-wife and people who ran his business to Israel.

The new arrivals cited names of their supposed relatives in Israel, but were unable to explain how they were related. Some admitted that they hadn’t faced any real threat to their lives, and that they had only been afraid that the war might come to their area in the future, and that they had come in search of better living conditions and work opportunities.

More arrivals

Despite the revelations it was agreed on Tuesday to step up the plan to bring in another 5,000 Ethiopians with immediate family in Israel.

The contingency plans were given the green light after immigration and absorption minister Pnina Tamano-Shata of the centrist Blue and White party – herself an Ethiopian-Israeli – threatened to resign saying she could not remain in the government “when Ethiopian Jews were being slaughtered”.

The move came despite security officials cautioning that the situation in Ethiopia, where the government is at war with the northern-based Tigray People’s Liberation Front, has not deteriorated to the point of requiring an emergency evacuation.

Israel’s national security council opposed airlifting Ethiopians, citing a “threat” of non-Jews “seeking to take advantage of the economic system in Israel”. In an official paper, the council called the airlift “a dangerous, unprecedented demographic mistake”.

Some 165,000 Ethiopian-Israelis live in Israel. About half came on airlifts in the 1980s and 1990s and the rest were born in Israel.

The community traces its origins to the biblical tribe of Dan or to King Solomon, and many were forced to convert to Christianity. In the 1970s the Israeli rabbinical authorities recognised them as Jews, making them eligible for immigration to Israel.

However, according to some Jewish Agency officials, all the genuine Jews in Ethiopia have already left and those remaining are at best "descendants of Jews" who are now claiming Israeli citizenship.