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The ‘Law of Return’ is being tested by Ethiopian Jews as an ‘Israel First’ policy begins to bite

The migrants, mainly Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis, were taken to a separate detention centre away from the fighting [File photo]

This week, Israel’s cabinet approved a bill to allow 1,000 Ethiopian Jews to migrate to Israel. The bill, which was first announced in September, proposed that Ethiopian Jews who already have family in Israel would be allowed to relocate to the state, bringing with them their partners and any unmarried children.

What the bill failed to mention was that some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews will be left behind in Ethiopia. Members of the Falash Mura tribe, thought to be descendants of the ancient Israelites who were forced to convert to Christianity, have long been a thorny issue for Israel. A 1991 covert operation — which flew over 14,000 Falash Mura to Israel in only 36 hours in the midst of political volatility in Ethiopia — was lauded as an example of Israel’s commitment to protecting all Jewish communities around the world.

Israel is keen to stress that Jews from all corners of the globe can migrate to Israel under the “Law of Return”. That law, which was enshrined in 1950, states that anyone who is Jewish or able to prove recent Jewish ancestry has the natural right to “make aliyah” to Israel. The law is in many ways central to Israel’s raison d’être as a homeland for Jews, which is an ethos that was entrenched further by the recent adoption of the controversial Nation State Law which declared that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it”.

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Yet, as this week’s case surrounding Ethiopian Jews demonstrates, not all Jews appear to be equal in Israel’s eyes. Paying lip service to the Law of Return, what their case demonstrates is the beginning of a shift towards an “Israel First” policy. The Law of Return is being tested, and as domestic questions increasingly challenge Israel’s political agenda, more and more Jews look set to be left out in the cold.

Israel has passed the Nation-State Law becoming officially an Apartheid State - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Israel has passed the Nation-State Law becoming officially an Apartheid State – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

For a long time, the rejection of the Falash Mura was blamed on racism. This belief is not without credence, and explains a large part of Israel’s reluctance to encourage all 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to migrate. At a time when Israel is fighting vehemently against refugees from other East African countries, including Ethiopia’s neighbours Eritrea and Sudan, the blunt reality seems to be that Ethiopian Jews are not the “right” colour. Discrimination against those already in Israel has surfaced in numerous sectors, including employment opportunities and among the ranks of the Israel Defence Forces. The outright animosity against these minorities has become particularly acute in some Israeli cities such as south Tel Aviv, for example, where many of these communities live. Only last week, the Likud faction running in Tel Aviv’s municipal elections came under fire for displaying posters reading “It’s us or them”, with images of African refugees juxtaposed against Israeli insignia to hammer home the issue.

The allegations of racism are strengthened further when the number of Falash Mura allowed to migrate to Israel is compared with that of Jews from other countries. In the first half of 2017 alone (the most recent immigration statistics made available by Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption), some 3,546 Jews moved to Israel from Russia. A further 2,956 went from Ukraine and 1,211 from France in the same period. It seems clear that, when it comes to desirability for migration to Israel, not all Jews are treated equally.

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Nevertheless, while racism against Ethiopian Jews should certainly not be minimised, there is an additional factor at play. Despite its rhetoric, deep down, Israel knows that the Law of Return is unsustainable. Promising every Jew in the world – estimated to be around 14.5 million in 2017 – a home in Israel simply isn’t viable. Israel is currently home to around 6.6 million Jews, or 44.4 per cent of world Jewry. When added to the 2.3 million non-Jews living inside Israel, as well as the 4.8 million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, that amounts to 13.7 million people living between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Add to that the remaining 55.6 per cent of Jews living outside Israel – a further 8 million people – and it is clear that something has to give.

Israel is facing some major demographic challenges that, if not managed, threaten to develop into existential crises. Its population continues to grow at a rate higher than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), due in large part to the high birth rates of the ultra-orthodox Haredim and the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians. Housing is becoming prohibitively expensive and construction inside Green Line Israel is slowing, leading many to choose to live in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, not for ideological reasons, but for the cheaper housing and “suburban” lifestyle they provide. Wages in Israel are the 13th lowest in the OECD, with relative poverty above the organisation’s average – reaching almost 50 per cent among Haredim and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The strain of the Haredim’s refusal to serve in the IDF or participate actively in the economy is also beginning to take its toll.

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While a further 1,000, or indeed 8,000, Falash Mura will not be the straw that breaks Israel’s back, what the rejection of thousands of Jews represents is the curtailment for pragmatic reasons of Israel’s founding philosophy. While the ongoing Israeli occupation and the recent escalation of violence against Palestinians protesting in Gaza provide convenient distractions from domestic difficulties, for the ordinary Israeli the latter are felt more acutely. Very few Israelis suffer any consequences when a Palestinian protester is shot, and few lose much sleep at night. Yet a more visibly-diverse ethnic population, a housing shortage and relative poverty are all tangible forces at play in Israel which threaten to increase domestic discontent.

To borrow US President Donald Trump’s phrase, what the latest Israeli bill covering the fate of Ethiopian Jews represents is a shift towards an “Israel First” policy. Though this is often sugar-coated in the traditional Zionist rhetoric of a homeland for Jews, the days of immigration over all else are apparently long gone. Whereas once Israel pushed actively for Jews to be brought to Israel to populate the fledgling state and build its workforce, immigration must now pass a cost-benefit analysis. Paying lip service to the plight of the Falash Mura is a small price to pay for keeping up appearances and preserving the credibility of the Law of Return, but at its core the latest situation demonstrates that the cost of welcoming all 8,000 Ethiopians with open arms is a price that Israel isn’t willing to pay.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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