The national arm of North American Jewish charitable federations is stepping up pressure on the Israeli agency responsible for immigration to take over a camp in Ethiopia, where thousands of would-be immigrants are waiting for permission to enter the Jewish state.
Signaling its frustration with government inaction, United Jewish Communities is pressing the Jewish Agency for Israel to take over the camp in Gondar, where about 9,000 Falash Mura — Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity under duress — are living in squalor. UJC is pushing for the Jewish Agency to provide nutritional and medical care, Hebrew language instruction and vocational training in order to prepare potential immigrants for life in the Jewish state. Most of the Falash Mura waiting to immigrate have embraced their Jewish roots and are now practicing Judaism.
“We have begun in earnest a conversation with the government and the Jewish Agency about its taking over the compounds,” said Doron Krakow, UJC’s senior vice president for Israel and overseas. “Our belief is that if people are eligible for making aliya to Israel, that we should do everything we can to ensure they have some of the best possible preparations.”
In an earlier deal struck between the Jewish Agency and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a nonprofit organization that has for many years provided funding and services to the Ethiopian camps, the Jewish Agency would move in only after the Israeli government doubled the number of Falash Mura brought to Israel each month. The government pledged in a January 2005 agreement to raise the rate of immigration to 600 from 300, and to finalize the list of those eligible for citizenship, but it has yet to make good on its promise.
In recent months, the government backtracked and proposed halving the monthly rate of Falash Mura immigration to 150. The current allowance of 300 was reinstated early this month, though some observers suggested at the time that the slash and restoration might have been intended to distract from the government’s failure to keep to its prior commitment to double the rate.
Advocates for the Falash Mura have accused the Jewish Agency of faltering in its responsibility to potential immigrants living in the Gondar camp and in Addis Ababa, where a smaller camp was closed last year following internecine disputes.
Avraham Neguise, who directs South Wing to Zion, a Jerusalem-based advocacy group for Ethiopian Jewry, said that the Jewish Agency should have taken over the camps long ago. “The Jewish Agency is playing games and finding excuses all the time not to fulfill its responsibility to help Jews in distress,” Neguise said. He also said that the North American Jewish community, as represented by UJC, should exert its influence to force the Jewish Agency to move into Gondar.
In 2005, UJC set out to raise $100 million under its Operation Promise campaign to bring the Falash Mura to Israel and to absorb them into society. But the federations fell short of that goal after fundraising efforts were shifted last summer to aid Israel’s war-ravaged northern region.
Despite the fact that UJC is ramping up pressure, the Jewish Agency says it has its hands tied. According to a spokesman for the quasi-governmental body, Michael Jankelowitz, the agency is bound to its previous agreement with Nacoej, which now funds the Gondar camp, to not take the reins until the rate of immigration is doubled. When and if that happens, Jankelowitz said, is up to the Israeli government.
“The Jewish Agency would like to be able to operate pre-absorption centers, but it’s not a matter of urgency,” Jankelowitz added.
Joseph Feit, a past president of Nacoej, disputed Jankelowitz’s assertion that the advocacy group would be unable to give over control to the Jewish Agency as a result of the prior agreement. His group, Feit said, would have no problem amending the stipulation that the rate of immigration would have to double before the Jewish Agency could move in.
“I am extremely confident that Nacoej’s board would happily agree to waive the provision and have the Jewish Agency run the Gondar compound, if the Jewish Agency provides assistance for all of the people covered by the agreement,” Feit said. He added that more than three years ago, in a meeting with former Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor, he offered to give them control of the schools in Addis Ababa and in Gondar.