Plan for Ethiopian Immigrants Collapses

By Nacha Cattan

Published May 30, 2003, issue of May 30, 2003.
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Ethiopian activists and their allies are waging a multi-front protest against the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel and several American Jewish philanthropies.

Thousands of demonstrators in Jerusalem this week pitched tents outside the prime minister’s office to protest the apparent collapse of a 4-month-old government plan to bring more than 18,000 languishing Ethiopians to Israel. Protesters are also objecting to what they say is the failure of Jewish federations and their main overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to supply adequate aid to the impoverished population, known as the Falash Mura.

“I have been separated from my mother, father, brother and sisters for six years,” said one demonstrator, Binkito Baquaia. “My mother and father are sick, but I can’t help them.… I don’t have money, and I have two children. I send whatever I can, but it is not enough.”

Most of the 18,000 waiting to emigrate from Ethiopia are living in squalid conditions as urban refugees, concentrated in Addis Ababa and Gondar City, around compounds operated by a New York-based charity, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. Activists claim that the poor conditions have led to 26 deaths since February.

“These people are dying daily from hunger and diseases,” said Avraham Neguise, an Israel-based activist who helped organize the protests and the executive director of South Wing to Zion: The Association of Ingathering and Absorption of Ethiopian Jewry.

The Falash Mura community comprises mainly Ethiopians who converted to Christianity under duress or the descendents of such people. Today, however, most are living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle — and Israel’s new Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, has stated that they are Jewish “without a doubt.”

Neguise and other supporters of the Falash Mura say they are growing increasingly desperate and have threatened to launch hunger strikes. A good deal of their wrath is directed at the Interior Ministry, which has failed to implement the Israeli Cabinet decision adopted in February that called for most of the 18,000 Ethiopians to be brought to Israel. In fact, last week the interior minister, Avraham Poraz, attempted to scuttle the plan, citing budget problems.

In response to foot-dragging in the ministry, now controlled by the anticlerical Shinui Party, lawmakers introduced a bill in the Knesset Tuesday that would order the government to expedite Ethiopian immigration.

Meanwhile, Israel-based Ethiopian activists are accusing the JDC and Jewish Agency of racial discrimination for spending more to aid Russian and Argentine communities than the Falash Mara starving in Ethiopia. Neguise sent a letter to the JDC, threatening to “protest in every legal manner against the heads of the JDC and the United Jewish Communities,” the roof body of North American Jewish charitable federations. The goal, Neguise wrote, is to make leaders of these organizations aware of “the discrimination against our brethren in Ethiopia.”

The UJC recently allocated $39 million to aid Argentine Jews. Yet its welfare agency caring for the Falash Mura — the JDC — allocates only $600,000 of its $45 million budget from UJC for those in Ethiopia.

The JDC and the Jewish Agency deny that their policies are discriminatory. They claim that the Ethiopians applying for immigration are living in better conditions than the rest of those in the famine-ridden country, thanks to whatever basic food and medical assistance is provided by charitable organizations. Officials from both JDC and the Jewish Agency blamed the Israeli government for its slow rate of evaluating and approving the immigration requests from those still in Ethiopia. Once approved, the officials said, the Falash Mura would then be eligible for further aid while they waited to emigrate. Until the application process is completed by the Interior Ministry, they say, increased humanitarian assistance would only raise the expectation of Ethiopians who may not be approved, while increasing what they say is the already high number of those falsely claiming Jewish descent. The JDC also pointed to the Israeli government’s past pattern of delaying action.

“We kept the last group of 4,000 Ethiopians in Addis for almost 10 years [until 1998] by providing full services,” said JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager. “Only when we indicated we would stop the funding, the Israeli government said they would process them under the Law of Entry. We want to keep the pressure on the Interior Ministry to determine when and if these people are eligible.”

Leaders of several Jewish organizations, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox-affiliated Rabbinical Council of America, have joined Neguise in calling on the UJC system to increase humanitarian assistance to the Falash Mura.

These communal leaders have written letters calling for advocacy on behalf of the Falash Mura to James Tisch, the chair-elect of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the outgoing chair of UJC.

The Cabinet ordered the Interior Ministry on February 16 to immediately determine the eligibility of the Falash Mura and hasten the immigration of those with Jewish ancestry on their maternal side. The decision called for further assistance from the Jewish Agency and American relief organizations, understood to be an indirect reference to JDC and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. At the time, the Interior Ministry was controlled by Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party that supports bringing the Falash Mura to Israel.

Following the February elections, however, Prime Minister Sharon opted not to include Shas in his new coalition, and handed the ministry over to the Shinui Party.

Poraz, the new interior minister, has failed to convene the ministerial committee set up to deal with the matter. On May 19, he spoke out against the earlier Cabinet decision, to the consternation of some Knesset members, including one in his own party. If the Cabinet decision is not implemented, observers warned, Ethiopian aliya may come to a standstill within a few months, since it is not clear how many of the Falash Mura would qualify under the Law of Return, which does not apply to people who converted to another religion.

— The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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