Israel has sent envoys to Ethiopia to examine the applications of 3,000 Ethiopians who claim to be descended from Jews as 2,000 French Jews are to emigrate to Israel this year, an agency helping to arrange the trip said Thursday.
Some 100,000 Jews from Ethiopia already live in Israel. Many arrived in airlifts in the 1980s and 1990s in times of hunger and political strife in Ethiopia.
Thousands more Falash Mura people, who claim they were forced to convert to Christianity in Ethiopia, have also immigrated in smaller groups, but Israel largely halted the flow about two years ago.
Some Israeli officials cited financial concern and questions about the applicants’ Jewish origins as reasons for the halt.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Orthodox Shas party has tried to renew the influx from Ethiopia in an effort to bring an estimated 8,700 people living in squalid transit camps for several years to the Jewish state, officials said.
Roi Lachmanovitch, a spokesman for Yishai, said the ministry had sent three officials, two from the ministry and one from the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to Ethiopia on Wednesday, to explore the eligibility for immigration of 3,000 people.
"Yishai considers it important to bring all Jews, including those regarding whose credentials there may be doubts, to Israel and it’s too bad this hasn’t already happened," Lachmanovitch said.
Yishai plans to ask the Israeli cabinet to allow most of the 8,700 people waiting for visas to immigrate, provided they meet eligibility qualifications and prove their Jewish background, an official said.
Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state, generally encourages Jewish immigration and subsidizes many newcomers to help ensure Jews remain a majority in a state where about 20 percent of the population are Arabs.
Immigrant groups in Israel have long protested the delay in permitting Falash Mura to arrive, saying it has split many families whose relatives have been left behind.
"We welcome the reopening of the gates, though this step doesn’t yet solve the whole problem," said Abraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, an Ethiopian advocacy group.
Neguise said there were recent reports of medical hardship in the transit camps in Ethiopia’s Gondar region.
Israel grants automatic citizenship to Jews who immigrate. Most Falash Mura must undergo a conversion ritual before receiving citizenship papers.
Meanwhile about 2,000 French Jews are to emigrate to Israel this year, slightly more than last year but down from previous peaks, according to figures from the agency helping to arrange the trip.
Around 230 of those planning to leave were to be blessed on Thursday by Gilles Bernheim, France’s Chief Rabbi, before taking a flight next week.
The head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s department for "aliyah", the Hebrew term for Jews migrating to the Holy Land, Oren Toledano, said 400 young people and 400 retirees are among this year’s "olims".
His organization has helped prepare them for their new lives by giving beginner’s Hebrew classes and helping them find jobs and schools in Israel.
Most who perform "aliyah" remain in Israel, although 10 percent return.
France is home to around half a million Jews, the biggest such community outside Israel and the United States and the only one in Europe to have grown since the Holocaust due to arrivals from North Africa.
It is also now the biggest source of new migrants to Israel, according to Toledano, who told a Jewish news weekly: "French Jews are very Zionist, that’s part of their culture, history and religious practice.”
"Israel is an essential value for the Jewish community in France."
The high point of French Jewish emigration to Israel came in 1967 when the Six Day War inspired 5,300 to make the journey.