NEW YORK (Jul. 26)
The plight of Ethiopian Jewry appears to have demonstrated some improvement in recent months as an “unprecedented number” of Falashas have succeeded in illegally leaving Ethiopia to go to Israel, according to an activist familiar with Ethiopian Jewry.
But at the same time, while there has been an improvement as a result of the efforts of the Israeli government, the severe drought in North Africa, said to be the worst in over a decade, has created new hardships. The drought has triggered a famine which the activist said is resulting in the deaths of some 50-100 children each day in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, a heavily populated Falasha region.
The activist, Barbara Ribakove, president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), provided this assessment to the more than 300 persons who gathered here last night at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Ribakove, who last visited Ethiopia in 1981, was one of several speakers addressing the issue of Ethiopian Jewry.
When asked specifically for the number of Falashas who have successfully made it to Israel, Ribakove declined, saying that the figures were provided in confidence. But her claims were supported by Rep. Bill Green (D. N. Y.) who also said there appeared to have been some success by the Israelis to make it easier for certain groups to leave Ethiopia.
EFFORTS BY ISRAEL, U.S. ARE HINDERED
The tone of the meeting, despite the information of the drought and its hardships, was markedly different than past rallies for Ethiopian Jews. The Israeli government has been sharply criticized by many groups working with Falashas for failing to take appropriate action to secure the release of the Falashas.
But as Green noted, the efforts by Israel and the United States are hindered because the Reagan Administration has little ability to influence the actions of the Ethiopian government. Since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the Falashas, who reside in the northwest of Ethiopia, have been geographically located in the center of a civil war.
The Falashas number about 20,000 today and have reportedly been subjected to cruel and harsh treatment, such as torture and slavery, by the present Communist government. In 1972, Israel’s two chief rabbis recognized the Falashas as Jews. But today, relatively little is known about how the Falashas reach Israel. For practical and political reasons, it is not a widely publicized subject.
Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government has just recently opened its doors to visitors to view first-hand the status of the Falashas. Dr. Jay Luger, a member of the steering committee of the NACOEJ last night presented a brief slide presentation of his trip to three Falasha villages last May. He, along with 11 others, made a 12-day visit to Ethiopia.
SITUATION OF THE FALASHAS
Luger’s slides presented a view of the hardships and primitive life-style of the Falashas. One slide, showing the Falashas in prayer in the synagogue in the village of Wolleca, outside the city of Gondar in the province of Gondar, indicated the Western influence on the Falashas in the past years.
The huts in the town of Wolleca are constructed of wood and mud. But the Western influence was demonstrated, according to Luger, by the Western-style prayer-shawls which the Falashas wore in the synagogue and by the mezuzah on the entrance to some homes.
In Ambober, the village referred to as the “showcase village,” the slides depicted some of the structures remaining from the combined ORT-American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee relief program which began in 1976. In 1981, the governor of the Gondar province, Maj. Malaku, revoked the permission for the operation of the program.
In the third village visited, Abbas Antonias, the small synagogue used by the Falashas did not have a Torah. Luger said the visit was sponsored by the NAC NACOEJ and was primarily a fact finding mission.
Rep. Ted Weiss (D. N.Y.), who also addressed the meeting, said that the Subcommittee on Africa, of which he is a member, has urged the Reagan Administration to help provide aid to Ethopia. He said members of the subcommittee will be going to several Africa nations in August and will, during the course of a stopover in Ethiopia, underscore the concern for the fate and future of the Falashas.