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Rally Held to Bring Plight of Falashas to Public Consciousness

Noting that 40 years ago the international community, “including most” of the Jewish world, “closed its eyes and ears” to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, a leading activist in the efforts to rescue Ethiopian Jewry from oppressive conditions and treatment, charged that once again there exists an “almost universal silence.”

With a few notable exceptions, Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders have placed the cause of Ethiopian Jewry near the bottom of their list of priorities, and have remained silent,” Menachem Rosensaft, chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, told some 300 people attending a rally last weekend to bring the plight of Ethiopian Jewry to the “public consciousness.” Held at the Lincoln Synagogue here, the rally was sponsored by the Network.

“The government of the United States pleads helplessness, and is silent. The United Nations is too busy defaming Israel to concern itself with the fate of persecuted Jews …” Rosensaft declared. He added: “Only the State of Israel exists as a refuge for the Jews of Ethiopia.”

THOUSANDS KILLED, MANY SOLD INTO SLAVERY

The Falashas numbered 250,000 in the 19th century and today their number has swindled to an estimated 20,000. They live in the northwestern province of Gondar which has been the center of civil war since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1972. Thousands have been killed, many sold into slavery and an estimated 7,000 are refugees, according to reports.

The present regime in Ethiopia is strongly pro-Soviet and anti-Zionist. Diplomatic relations with Israel have been severed. Ethiopian Jews are arrested, accused of being Zionist ringleaders and CIA agents, and tortured, according to reports. Further reports indicate that Falasha schools have been closed and their villages have been cut off from contact with the outside.

In 1972, Israel’s Chief Rabbis recognized Falashas as Jews, and in 1975, an Israeli mini-ministerial committee ruled that Falashas were Jews, and, as such, were entitled to admission to Israel with full citizenship rights under the Law of Return. In the past few years, some 1,200 Falashas are reported to have reached Israel and as few as a dozen have arrived in Israel since May 1981.

SITUATION FURTHER DETERIORATES

The plight of Ethiopia’s Jews further deteriorated when last year, the governor of the Gondar province, Major Malaku, revoked permission of what was a combined ORT-Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) relief program. The program had been in effect since 1976.

It set up schools and classes, and had a student enrollment of 3,000; also provided by the ORT-JDC program were training programs in agriculture, and the establishment of Jewish education and some synagogues. But the governor of the province closed down the program for fear that it was encouraging the Falashas to emigrate to Israel. Emigration is illegal in Ethiopia.

While eyewitness reports over the past years have outlined the desperate situation facing the Falashas, others claimed that the reports of a potential Holocaust are “exaggerated” and a “disservice” to the memory of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

SAYS ISRAEL IS DOING ALL IT CAN

Naphtali Lavie, Consul General of Israel in New York, made a point of this at the meeting last weekend when he indicated that labeling the plight of Ethiopian Jewry as a Holocaust was an abuse of the term. Noting that he was speaking not as a representative of the government of Israel but as a private citizen and a Holocaust survivor, Lavie said Israel was doing all it can to help the Falashas and explained that Israel does not have control over the actions of the Ethiopian government and conditions inside that country.

The Israeli diplomat noted that the date of the meeting he was addressing, April 11, was significant to him because it was on the same date 37 years earlier that he was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

MUST GET FALASHAS TO ISRAEL

Rep. Bill Green (R. N. Y.) said of the Ethiopian Jewry situation that any effort to get the Falashas to Israel must “be conducted in subterranean atmospheres.” He noted the Ethiopian government is closely aligned with Libya, and the United States government therefore does not have great influence within the Ethiopian government.

Green said he has brought the issue of the Falashas to the attention of the State Department in a letter this past February. In a reply, the Department, it was reported, indicated that although it does not have the proper influence, it continues to work through the refugee assistance program in the Sudan where Falashas have fled to in past years.

Noted author Elie Woesel, who was unable to attend the rally but has been at the forefront of the Falasha issue, sent a letter which was read at the beginning of the meeting. It stated: “For years and years the Jews of Ethiopia wanted to join their people, our people and regretfully, shamefully, little was done to enable them to do so. Public opinion must be alerted to their plight. We must not abandon them as we must not abandon other Jewish communities. If the word equality has a meaning, then Jews in Ethiopia and Jews in New York are equally entitled to the duties and privileges of being Jewish.”

EXPECTS JEWISH LEADERSHIP TO LEAD

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rosensaft said he felt the rally achieved a significant goal. “We have reached a greater number of people than before … and this will have the impact that this is a concern to the Jewish community as a whole and not just to some elements within it,” he said.

But he added that he was “disappointed” that some leaders in the Jewish community have paid “lip-service” to the cause of the Falashas. He recalled that similar to the Falasha issue, was the long period of time it took for some to react to the situation facing Soviet Jewry. “We expect the Jewish leadership to lead, rather than be pushed by events,” he asserted.

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