Israeli minister acts over fate of Falashas

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The Independent Online

Israel's interior Minister, Natan Sharansky, will fly to Ethiopia tomorrow to investigate claims by thousands of camp-bound Ethiopians that that they are of Jewish origin and therefore entitled to emigrate to Israel.

His three-day mission comes amid an intensifying dispute over the fate of the Falashas - the Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity about 100 years ago, but who maintain that they are entitled to go to Israel under the Jewish state's Law of Return.

Ehud Barak's government has been under awkward pressure from American Jewish groups - who raise vast sums for Jewish organisations worldwide - to admit the Falashas, whose estimated numbers range from 2,000 to 26,000.

But concerns abound among Israelis over whether they are truly Jewish, whether their admission will lead to the arrival of many others seeking a higher standard of living, and whether the Israeli economy can absorb them.

Supporters of the Falashas accuse Israel of discriminating against their Ethiopian brothers, and draw a contrast with the encouragement given to hundreds of thousands of mostly white immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the last decade - despite evidence that a sizable proportion of them (just over half of the arrivals last year) are not Jewish.

Champions of the Ethiopian cause won a significant victory recently when Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the government, which had been highly reluctant to process the Ethiopians' admission requests, must produce a plan for doing so by next Tuesday. This appears to be a big factor behind Mr Sharansky's trip.

For several months many thousands of Falashas have gathered in refugee-style compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar in northern Ethiopia, where they have been receiving instruction in Judaism in courses funded by American Jewish organisations.