NEW YORK (Mar. 11)
An official of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) described the conditions of the Jews of Ethiopia as “untenable” and warned of a “quickened” pace of deterioration of the situation of the 18,000-member Falasha community.
“It is hard for me to draw any inference that things could be better than they were several years ago” for the Falashas, said Eli Rockowitz, a vice president of the AAEJ who visited Ethiopia two months ago, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The AAEJ, a national grassroots activist organization dedicated to aiding the Falashas, claims a membership of 22,000 people.
Factors contributing to the deteriorating conditions of the Falashas, according to Rockowitz, include: the worst drought in North Africa in a decade; the intense military activity along Ethiopia’s border with Somalia; and the ongoing conflict between the government forces and anti-government rebels and separationist movements in areas where Falasha villages are located; the continued ban on the teaching of Hebrew and Jewish studies; and the conscription of Falasha youth into military service.
The Marxist government in Addis Ababa does not officially seek to eradicate the Falashas, Rockowitz said. But Falashas are greatly persecuted by their neighbors — Christians and Moslems — “who have age-old animosities and suspicion of the Jews,” he pointed out. The government, because of the military situation in the region, is unable to maintain law and order and thus protect the Falashas, according to Rockowitz.
DESCRIBES SITUATION IN THREE VILLAGES
He assessed his first visit to Ethiopia last January as a member of a delegation of nine activists who spent 10 days in Gondar city visiting Falasha villages and speaking with Ethiopian Jews and other sources familiar with their plight. The group’s itinerary, planned beforehand in cooperation with the Ethiopian government, included scheduled visits to three Falasha villages, two of which — Ambober and Wallecka — have been described as “showcase villages” by Rockowitz and other Jewish visitors.
The showcase villages are labeled as such because tourists are allowed to visit them and, as Rockowitz observed, “Bibles are set up on tables with the pages open for you to see and Torahs are in the ark. It’s all like a museum.” But according to Rockowitz, these villages are not representative of the more than 400 Falasha villages scattered throughout Ethiopia, although many are located in the Gondar province.
The group visited Ambober, a mixed village where approximately 1,000 Falashas live and where there is a synagogue and a number of spiritual leaders; Wallecka, which also has a synagogue and spiritual leader and which is a central tourist attraction, is a village which Rockowitz said “the government had no problem with us seeing.” Also visited was the mixed village of Tedda where individuals spoke broken Hebrew and there was no synagogue or spiritual leaders.
The group did visit one village which was not on the itinerary and said the group spoke with a “trembling” and fearful spiritual leader who pressed the view that the plight of the Falashas has deteriorated. Rockowitz said he did not want the name of this village published although he conceded it was within view and walking distance to the other villages, all located near Gondar city.
The official government reason for the group not being able to tour other Falasha villages during their 10-day visit was that documents could not be processed and permission could not be obtained through the proper authorities, Rockowitz said. “We were given to understand from contacts,” he added, “that there was a substantial amount of military activity” in these other areas.
The AAEJ official concluded that because certain villages were kept off limits to tourists, even though they were within walking distance from Ambober and Wallecka, suggests that conditions are different there. “The combination of the drought and the rebel activity both prejudice the conditions of the Falashas,” he said.
Asked specifically how it can be determined that conditions are worse off for the Falashas in other areas where he did not visit, Rockowitz said: “To some degree we have to infer. We were told in the villages where we were and by people other than Falashas that the military situation and the drought led them to believe that the situation was worse off … No government official is going to say we cannot let you go to these villages because the conditions are wretched.”
“We were directed to certain villages where religious articles and the synagogues were in perfect condition and other neighboring villages were kept away from us,” Rockowitz said. But he added that while the synagogue was kept in perfect condition, the general living conditions of the Falashas in these villages were “indescribably poor.”
The study of Hebrew is forbidden and could result in severe punishment by the authorities. It is not formally taught, Rockowitz said, and the delegation detected no signs of Hebrew books in the villages. But the children were able to write and speak Hebrew, indicating that the Falashas make a concerted effort to preserve Hebrew knowledge, he said.
VILLAGES DEPLETED OF TEENAGE YOUTHS
Other factors leading to a deterioration in the Falasha plight is the loss in many villages of youths, some to the military by forced conscription, and others who are able to make the arduous and long trek to escape the country. These factors leave Falasha villages with many elderly and very young children.
“So what we heard on the spot is that the villages are depleted of teenage youths” and the remaining Falashas “are not able to sustain themselves as well because of the lack of help in the fields harvesting crops,” Rockowitz said.
CALLS FOR RESCUE EFFORTS
Rockowitz called on American Jewish groups which have helped rescue Jews from oppressed countries to intensify their rescue efforts on behalf of the Falashas. He also called on Israel to make a concerted and increased effort for the Falashas.
While crediting Israel with getting Falashas to Israel once they have escaped Ethiopia, Rockowitz said Israel must undertake a large diplomatic initiative in Ethiopia in order to save the Falashas. “If we’re talking about saving the Jewish community as a whole, we need to see a total commitment by Israel and Jewish organizations toward a diplomatic initiative in Israel,” he asserted.