Dozens of people smuggled in a secret operation from Ethiopia to Israel recently may have misrepresented their Jewish ancestry and exaggerated the level of danger they were in, according to reports Sunday.
An investigation by the Immigration and Population Authority raised “serious doubts” regarding the vast majority of a group of 61 Ethiopians brought to Israel over the last several months, who may have been part of a conspiracy involving a man who immigrated from Ethiopia over 20 years ago, Haaretz reported.
Members of the community involved in the effort denied the accusations, according to Channel 12 news, which also published an assessment from the National Security Council claiming that there was no urgency to airlift efforts.
Pressure has ramped up on Israel in recent weeks to bring some thousands of members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community to Israel as an insurgency by Tigray rebels has intensified and neared the capital Addis Ababa.
“We must continue to act bring them over to Israel quickly,” President Isaac Herzog said last week.
Since fighting broke out a year ago, over 2,000 Ethiopian Jews have been brought to Israel in state-run operations, among them the group of 61 who needed ministers to sign off on their immigration because they are not part of the Jewish community but claimed only Jewish roots.
Though the plan to spirit them to Israel was put together during the tenure of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was the cabinet of his successor Naftali Bennett that signed off on it, Haaretz reported.
After being brought to Israel, the 61 were settled in an absorption center in Kibbutz Beit Alfa. But after some of them briefly put pictures online, suspicions were raised regarding their backgrounds and the information they had provided to Israeli authorities, leading immigration officials to order a more thorough investigation.
“There are serious doubts regarding the petitioners’ relationship to Jewish ethnicity despite their affidavits,” a report from the Immigration and Population Authority reads, according to Haaretz.
“Most of the petitioners did not come from a combat area as claimed and were not in life-threatening danger,” the report added, noting that they would not ordinarily have been able to immigrate to Israel.
Authorities had only been able to confirm Jewish ancestry in four people from the group, a source told the paper.
The probe found that the list of names compiled for rescue came from a man who had immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1996. According to media reports, the group brought over include two people claiming to be his sons, his ex-wife, who is Christian, her husband and their children and a number of people he worked with in the past.
“There’s a feeling that this was a conspiracy to take advantage of the system,” the investigation concludes.
However, sources told Haaretz that the group would not be sent back to Ethiopia no matter what the final conclusion is.
There are thought to be 7,000 to 12,000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to come to Israel, many of whom live in the Tigray region, the heart of the conflict. Others, who left their villages years ago, eke out livings near the Jewish community centers in Gondar City and Addis Ababa. Many have been waiting decades to immigrate.
But a document from the National Security Council dated November 7 and published by Channel 12 news claimed that some 10,000 people awaiting clarification of their status to be able to immigrate to Israel were in no immediate danger and that there was a “threat” of non-Jews slipping into Israel as economic refugees.
The memo also claimed that even talking about rescuing the groups could endanger them and suggested political pressure for an airlift was being manufactured.
“It’s not certain there is any need to airlift those awaiting clarification at this time or in general. Bringing thousands of people awaiting clarification to Israel would be an unprecedented demographic mistake, and is unneeded and dangerous,” the document reads.
Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who is herself of Ethiopian extraction, said the document was “worthy of being tossed in the trash bin of Israeli history.”
“This isn’t a security assessment but merely a political position paper from political actors trying to shut down the rescue of the remaining Ethiopian Jews,” she was quoted saying by Channel 12.
She also accused the NSC of stepping out of its lane.
While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.
The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.