TEL AVIV: More than 300 Ethiopians landed in Israel Thursday after the government approved immigration plans for 2,000 members of their Falash Mura community, whose desire to move to the Jewish state has stirred controversy.
The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity — many under duress — in the 18th and 19th centuries.
They are not recognized as Jews by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical authorities, but claim the right to immigrate under family reunification rules.
The government approved about 9,000 claimants in 2015 but then rescinded the decision the following year, citing budgetary constraints.
Some groups in Israel, including members of the Ethiopian community, have opposed immigration of the Falash Mura, citing doubts over their claim to be Jewish.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has become a vocal supporter of Falash Mura immigration, was on hand at the airport to greet the first group of 316 arrivals.
“Dear brothers and sisters of ours, immigrants from Ethiopia, we are so moved to welcome you here,” Netanyahu told the new immigrants, according to a government statement.
The remaining roughly 1,700 Falash Mura Ethiopians are expected to arrive by the end of January, according to the immigration plan approved by Netanyahu’s cabinet in October.
The bulk of Ethiopia’s Jewish community was brought to the country between 1984 and 1991 under the Law of Return, which guarantees Israeli citizenship to all Jews.
The Ethiopian-Israeli community has since grown to 140,000-strong, including 50,000 born in Israel.
Many say they faced racial discrimination, notably abuse by Israel’s police.