Ethiopians Face Threat of Malaria Epidemic

By Nacha Cattan

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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With an outbreak of malaria sweeping through Ethiopia, American lawmakers are criticizing Israel for failing to open its doors to 18,000 would-be immigrants from the African nation.

Several members of Congress raised the issue during recent meetings with Israeli officials in an attempt to win support for the impoverished Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura. Recognized as Jews by rabbis across the denominational spectrum, the Falash Mura are living as urban refugees in Addis Ababa and Gondar City, and now face the added threat of a major malaria epidemic.

Israeli officials have been slow to evaluate the immigration requests of members of the Falash Mura community, made up mostly of Jews who converted to Christianity under duress or the descendants of such people. For the most part, these Ethiopians now live as Orthodox Jews.

The decision to blast Israel over its treatment of the Falash Mura represents a rare step for congressmen, who generally only weigh in on Israel-related issues concerning security and the peace process. Among those speaking out are several members of the 39-member Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York who represents a large Jewish population.

“Israel was set up for the ingathering of refugees,” Nadler told the Forward. “These Jews are certainly in terrible trouble. We’ve identified them, now bring them in quickly.”

Expecting broad support from members of the Black Caucus, Nadler plans to collect signatures for a letter strongly urging Prime Minister Sharon to follow through on an Israeli Cabinet resolution adopted in February to expedite the immigration of the Falash Mura. Avraham Poraz, of the anti-clerical Shinui Party, failed to act on the resolution after taking over as interior minister.

Nadler, along with fellow Democrats Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, met with Poraz in Israel earlier this month to press him on the matter. The representatives were in Israel as part of a mission organized by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

During the same trip to Israel, which involved 29 Democratic congressmen during the first week of August, Nadler also raised the issue with Sharon. According to Nadler, Sharon said that he had ordered the immigration process to be sped up. Still, Nadler said, he remained skeptical.

“I don’t know what that means,” Nadler said. “Will they increase immigration from 300 a month to 322 a month? Or for real?”

Two other New York Democrats, Rep. Gregory Meeks and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, said they also plan to push the issue this week with Israeli ministers during a mission to the region organized by the UJA-Federation of New York and the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. In addition, Brewer said, she plans to circulate a letter similar to Nadler’s among her fellow council members.

More than 59 Falash Mura have died since January, most of them children who succumbed to hunger and disease, Ethiopian activists say. The malaria outbreak, Nadler said, “just reinforces the urgency of getting these people out of there as soon as possible.”

In Ethiopia, about 40 million people are at risk and tens of thousands of people may die from the epidemic, according to the World Health Organization. Yet at least 5,000 Falash Mura have been left out of a program granting anti-malaria drugs and other medical services by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that receives the bulk of its funding from Jewish charitable federations in North America.

Some 14,000 Falash Mura who left their villages to live near overcrowded compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar City are receiving basic food and medical attention from the Joint and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. But 5,000 more, who arrived after 2000, have been denied aid.

Conference officials say that the organization will most likely open its food and educational programs to any of the 5,000 Ethiopians who can establish Jewish ancestry. Ethiopian activists and conference officials called on the Joint to do the same with its medical program.

Joint officials told the Forward that it would assist any of the Falash Mura, including the 5,000 new arrivals, who come to the Joint seeking medical help. “While this is not a recognition of their status, it’s the simple human thing to do,” said the Joint’s assistant executive vice president, Amir Shaviv. Shaviv pointed out that the Israeli government has yet to recognize these 5,000 Falash Mura as applicants for aliya.

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