A dozen Ethiopians, including nine children, reportedly died last month after being refused care by American Jewish relief organizations as they waited for permission to immigrate to Israel.
Among the dead were starvation victims Emaye Molla, 18, and her 8-year-old brother, Berhane, Ethiopian activists said. According to the activists, others died from treatable cases of bronchitis, measles and dysentery.
The 12 people who died were among 5,000 Ethiopians being denied medical aid and food handouts from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, activists say. The Jewish relief agencies are already extending help to 14,000 other members of the Falash Mura community who are languishing in squalid urban compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa.
Known as Falash Mura, this overall population of 18,000-plus Ethiopians comprises Jews who converted to Christianity under duress or the descendents of such people. Israeli officials have attempted to keep these Ethiopians out of Israel, though they now practice an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and have the backing of key rabbis from all the religious streams.
Since January, activists say, at least 47 Falash Mura in Ethiopia have died of hunger or disease.
The 5,000 Ethiopians not receiving aid are essentially double victims of Israeli delay, activists say. As they wait for the Interior Ministry to heed court orders and government directives to expedite the immigration process, these Ethiopians find themselves shut off from the meager sustenance afforded their kin by the Joint and the Conference.
“They are dying of simple diseases,” said Avraham Neguise, an Israel-based Falash Mura activist and the executive director of South Wing to Zion. “It could be treated easily if the [Joint] would give them medical assistance.”
The 12 deaths come five months after the Israeli Cabinet adopted a resolution to expedite the immigration of nearly 20,000 Falash Mura to Israel. That plan all but collapsed when the anti-clerical Shinui party took over the Interior Ministry in February and raised objections to the mass migration. The Cabinet resolution had been passed at the urging of the previous interior minister, who hailed from Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party that has feuded with Shinui.
This week, despite strong opposition by some government ministers and Ethiopian activists, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz was appointed to lead a ministerial committee charged with handling the Falash Mura immigration issue.
Ethiopian activists recently filed a lawsuit in Israel against the Jewish state for allegedly dragging its feet on the issue. Members of the U.S. Congress and many Jewish groups have urged Israel to speed up the immigration process.
In a cruel twist, Neguise and other activists said, the group of 5,000 Ethiopians is essentially being punished for listening when the Israeli government and Jewish relief organizations requested that potential immigrants remain in their villages. While thousands of other Falash Mura ignored these directives, leaving their grass huts for the overcrowded cities to await approval for immigration, these 5,000 people stayed put. When these villagers finally started trickling into Gondar during the past three years, the relief agencies informed them that they were no longer eligible for assistance afforded to those who had settled in the city before 2000.
These 5,000 villagers finally migrated to the cities, activists said, in order to escape a looming famine and for fear of missing out on a chance to immigrate to Israel.
The policy of denying assistance was criticized by a top leader of the Conservative movement.
“These people should be fed and immunized,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “We’re not dealing with people’s convenience or quality of life, we’re talking about life itself.”
Epstein called the Jewish community’s handling of the Falash Mura issue “immoral.”
Officials at the Joint defended the policy, saying that in 2000 leaders of the Falash Mura community handed the organization a complete list of those in need and agreed that no new arrivals to the city would be eligible for assistance. The rationale behind capping the aid, officials at the Joint said, was to remove the incentive for villagers to move to Addis Ababa and Gondar, where conditions were far worse than in the countryside.
“We have not wanted to create magnets to attract people from their villages,” said William Recant, the assistant executive vice president of the Joint and former director of the now defunct American Association for Ethiopian Jews. “We think it’s better for people to remain in their villages until decisions are made on [immigration to Israel].”
Recant challenged the death toll of 47 floated by Neguise, saying the Joint has found that only 40 people enrolled in the organization’s medical program have died, including those who died of natural causes. Recant pointed out that those who are being served by the agency’s $600,000-per year medical program have a lower death rate than people living in the United States and Israel.
The Joint calculates that in 2002 the mortality rate for the Falash Mura was 0.48% and is only 0.29% so far this year. By contrast 0.6% of Israelis die each year, and the death rate for Americans is an even higher 0.8%, Recant said. He acknowledged that the Falash Mura’s higher survival rate is partially attributable to the fact that community members are on average younger than residents of Israel and the United States.
Lorraine Blass, the senior planner of United Jewish Communities, the roof body of American Jewish welfare federations and main financial supporter of the Joint, said that the relief agency is reviewing the list of 5,000 new arrivals to Gondar to determine whether they have legitimate claims to Jewish ancestry and should be serviced.
“We’re concerned to hear about deaths,” Blass said. Using the Joint’s initials, she said: “We’ve been in touch with JDC and the JDC has agreed to follow up on the issue and to do an assessment.”
Meanwhile, New York attorney Joseph Feit, a leader of the Conference, said that despite budgetary constraints, his organization is likely to begin offering food assistance to the 5,000 Ethiopians. He called on the Joint to do the same.
“Since the JDC is the sole provider of medical services to the Jewish communities in Addis and Gondar, and the lives of Jewish children have always been at stake, I do not understand why the JDC did not adopt a more human, more inclusive policy,” Feit said.
The Conference already spends about $2 million running an education and food distribution program in Gondar and Addis Ababa.