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Officials Foresee Suffering by Jews in Ethiopian Famine

A second famine in three years is threatening to devastate Ethiopia, and with it the 10,000-20,000 Jews living primarily in the country’s Gondar region.

As many as 7.3 million of Ethiopia’s estimated 45 million people may again face starvation, according to George Kassis, UNICEF desk officer for Ethiopia.

Faced with a crop-withering drought, civil war and an agricultural economy that has yet to recover from the famine of 1984-85, the Ethiopian government has appealed for donations of 1.4 million tons of food.

Last week, members of the Interfaith Hunger Appeal, a relief coalition that includes the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), returned from a week-long fact-finding tour of Ethiopia. “There is an impending crisis, and the shortfall of one million tons of food is at least accurate,” said Monsignor Robert Coll, executive director of the organization, at a news conference.

Food shortages have particularly affected the northern regions of Eritrea and Tigre, but parts of Gondar and other regions are not immune to drought or mass migrations, Coll reported.

The Jews of Gondar will face food shortages despite what Aryeh Cooperstock, director of the JDC’s International Development Program, said was “the best crop there in years.” The crop, planted as part of JDC’s agricultural recovery project, was diminished by rain and hail.

Nevertheless, said Cooperstock, who accompanied the interfaith trip to Ethiopia, “I am optimistic about Gondar, but very concerned about Ethiopia.”

For Ethiopian Jews in Gondar and Israel, the fear of starvation is compounded by anguish at separation from family members. In addition, say Ethiopia Jewry activists in this country, the resumption of forced resettlement could destroy the fragile social fabric of the Jewish community.

The activists say that almost every Ethiopian Jew who immigrated to Israel during the Operation Moses airlift in 1985 left behind a first-degree relative.

Between November 1984 and March 1985, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel from neighboring Sudan. Because of the unreliability of an Ethiopian census taken in 1976 and the perceived reluctance of Jews to come forward, estimates of the numbers of remaining Jews range from 10,000 to 20,000.

“Their separation is painful for them at all times,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. “But when they see the photographs again (of starving people), the anguish is great.”

And according to Will Recant, executive director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, the family members left behind because they couldn’t attempt the physically grueling exodus to Israel were all too often women, children and the infirm — those least likely to weather the effects of famine.

Despite international pressure, Mengistu Haile Mariam, president of Ethiopia, has resumed a resettlement program that includes the movement of people short distances from their farms and scattered dwellings to government-selected village sites. The United States and other donors object to the forced nature of the program, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID).

“The Ethiopian Jews have great fear of ‘villagization,'” said Recant. “Moving the members of a village miles away totally destroys their sense of community and separateness.”

In anticipation of famine and resettlement, some Ethiopian Jews have migrated to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where there is little housing and few ways of making a living, Recant said.

Activists have been unable to sway the Ethiopian government to consider the renewed emigration of Ethiopian Jews, even as a way of relieving the government’s burden of aid.

‘FORCIBLE ABDUCTION’

In a recent news conference in Washington, for example, Kassa Kebede, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, repeated Ethiopian government claims that Operation Moses was a “forcible abduction,” and that religion is not a cause for Ethiopias to be allowed to leave.

According to the Near East Report, a Washington-based newsletter that reported Kebede’s comments, a meeting on the subject at the United Nations in September between Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister, and his Ethiopian counterpart was “unsatisfactory.”

Recant of AAEJ feels that the donor countries that are making up the bulk of Ethiopia’s shortfall can pressure Mengistu to allow the emigration of Jews to continue.

“Donor nations should bring up the fact (to the Ethiopians) that ‘if you allow some people to leave it would be easier for us to continue giving aid,'” said Recant.

International donors have made commitments to supply 582,000 tons of relief food, according to Kassis. Earlier this month, AID pledged 115,000 additional tons of food, bringing the agency’s total commitment to 272,000 tons.

Meantime, private volunteer organizations such as JDC and the Boston-based American Jewish World Service are continuing to provide relief and development assistance to Ethiopia on a non-sectarian basis.

During the Interfaith Hunger Appeal mission, JDC’s Cooperstock met with Berhanu Jambare, chief of Ethiopia’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, who reiterated the government’s support for JDC’s various agricultural and public health projects in Gondar.

The fortunes of all Ethiopians, however, may lie in the generosity of the donor community. Relief officials agree that improved monitoring so far has staved off disaster and that international commitments should be sufficient for the first few months of 1988.

Beyond that, officials are concerned that individual donors respond more quickly than they did three years ago. As the Interfaith Hunger Appeal’s Coll explained, “We hope people will respond before they see the swollen bellies on TV.”

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