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CJF President Cancels Opening Night Speech As General Assembly Focusses on Ethiopian Jewry After Dem

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It was night that will long be remembered. It was an unprecedented night for a General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations. The opening plenary session was to have featured a major policy statement by CJF president Martin Citrin. However, it was cancelled following a prolonged and boisterous protest from some 40 young people on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry. (See separate story.)

The issue of Ethiopian Jewry was to have been the topic of a forum following the opening plenary session late at night, between 9:30 and 10:45 p.m. when five other concurrent sessions were also scheduled. But the issue of Ethiopion Jewry became the focal point of the night by virtue of the demonstration.

The actual planned session, “Ethiopian Jewry: New Challenges and Responsibilities, “was almost anticlimatic by comparison to the demonstration. Only some 1,000 of the 2,000 Jewish community leaders from the United States and Canada at the 53rd General Assembly attended the session on Ethiopian Jewry in half of the grand ballroom of the Sheraton Centre Hotel after it was divided evenly by a partition to allow the other half of the ballroom to be used for a forum on religion in politics.

U.S. OFFICIAL URGES ‘TRUST’ IN RESCUE EFFORT

Ambassador H. Eugene Douglas, U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs, described the plight and suffering of millions of people around the world suffering from famine, disease and oppression and noted that the plight of Ethiopian Jewry is part of this global tragedy. Referring to the earlier demonstration, he exhorted the audience to “have more trust” in the efforts undertaken by the American and Israeli governments to rescue Ethiopian Jewry.

In an answer to the demonstrators, who had criticized the Israeli government for its failure to remove Jews directly from Ethiopia while private Jewish agencies in the U.S. and Canada were doing so, Douglas cautioned against private groups trying to substitute their relief and rescue work for that of government efforts.

The reality, he said, is that private groups are not in a position to match what governments can do through diplomatic, financial and behind the scenes activities in providing the kind of aid required by mass populations in famine stricken areas. Private groups “should but out of this field,” Douglas said. He noted that private groups often impede and make more difficult the work of governments in helping those in need.

During the question’ and answer period, which followed his presentation, and that of two Israelis and two Ethiopian Jews who now live in Israel, Simcha Jacobovici, who led the demonstration at the opening plenary session, was given time to address the audience. He recounted the terrible plight of Ethiopian Jews.

“The world is now watching Ethiopia starve to death,” he said. “Thousands of Jews are among the dying. The Ethiopian Jewish community is fast becoming extinct. How much longer can they survive?”

Jacobovici, a student at Toronto University and the producer of an award winning film on Ethiopian Jews, said there are now 12,000 Jewish refugees in Sudan. Moreover, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews are victims of the worst continuing drought in Africa’s history. This summer, he said, 2,000 Jews have already died and more than 300 are dying every month. He quoted as his sources for this information The New York Times, The Toronto Star and The Jerusalem Post.

He declared to applause, “How many more Jews must die before Ethiopian Jews become the number one priority at the General Assembly?” He stated that “it is not unreasonable to ask that we show particular concern for Ethiopian Jews who survived 2,000 years and who are now on the verge of extinction. Everyone is suffering in Ethiopia and in Africa. While it is not the responsibility of the American government to worry first about Ethiopian Jews, it is the responsibility of the organized Jewish community to be first concerned with Jews in danger, and the Ethiopian Jews are in danger. If it is not a number one priority for us, why should it be a priority for anyone else?”

Jacobovici said that while major non-Jewish international relief agencies are helping the general Ethiopian population in the last six months 2,000 Ethiopian Jews died in refugee camps outside of Ethiopia’s borders, 10,000 to 14,000 Ethiopian Jews are suffering in the overcrowded disease ridden refugee camps and 6,000 or more very old, sick and young Ethiopian Jews are still trapped in Ethiopia.

JEWS THREATENED BY FIGHTING

The remnant of the Jewish community of Ethiopia’s Gondar province is also threatened by the ongoing fighting between government roops and rebel forces in two major provinces neighboring Gondar, Jacobovici said.

He warned that in several years, there will still be a Christian and Moslem community in Ethiopia, but that the critical mass of the Jews will have dwindled to a proint of near extinction.

He said that he and the other demonstrators are “not bums. I am pro-Zionist and pro-Israel.” Jacobovici praised Israel’s efforts in resettling and absorbing Ethiopian Jews once they are in Sudan but added that the issue is not how many are saved but how many are not. He claimed that while major international humanitarian organizations are involved in famine and drought relief in Ethiopia Jewish organizations are not involved in any substantial ways in famine and drought relief there.

In response, Douglas warned that efforts to help the Jews of Ethiopia, a country with a large Moslem population and a country surrounded by Arab nations, would be made extremely difficult if the issue was linked directly with Zionism and Israel. He said that relief efforts should be conducted within the framework of humanitarian efforts and the reunification of families.

The two Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel who addressed the session, Uri Ben-Gad and Rachamin Ben-Joseph, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Ethiopia because of their proclaimed Zionism, issued a plea to save the Jews of Ethiopia. Ben-Gad, who spoke in his native language, which was translated into English by Ben-Joseph, said, “Our people are dying. Our people are alone. They are helpless. Our people are in need. They are starving. They are waiting for your help. Save them.”

Haim Aron, a former Israeli Ambassador to Colombia who now heads the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Department, recounted the numerous and various efforts “to bring people from centuries ago to 20th century Israel.” He said that Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are trained to become part of Israel’s mainstream but that at the same time every effort is being made “not to impair the culture they brought with them, their heritage. We are trying to teach them to be independent and not dependent on the government.” Aron said the absorption of Ethiopian Jews could be a big success story for Israel.

Yael Rom, co-chairman of the Israel Public Council on Ethiopian Jews, who had worked at Technion as a counsellor with disadvantaged students, said the Council seeks to bring to public attention the needs of Ethiopian Jews and to bring them to Israel, and to facilitate their absorption. She pointed out that the Council seeks to provide job training and placement for the new immigrant and tries to develop an indigenous leadership to enhance the pride and identity of the Ethiopian Jewish newcomers.

There was a moment of silence for those Ethiopian Jews who had died in Ethiopia and for those who died in the effort to immigrate to Israel.

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