Resolution on Ethiopian Jews Has Some Jewish Groups Nervous

American Jewish groups have been hesitant to endorse a resolution introduced last week in the U.S. Senate that calls on President Bush to condition any improvement in U.S.-Ethiopian relations on better treatment for Ethiopia’s estimated 15,000 Jews.

The groups appear to be worried that the resolution is too strongly worded, especially in urging Bush to involve the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, in a diplomatic initiative on behalf of Ethiopian Jews.

The resolution says Pickering should petition the U.N. World Food Program, Security Council and General Assembly to press Ethiopia “to develop and implement a policy for the sustained emigration of Ethiopian Jews.”

The resolution was introduced June 2 by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and co-sponsored by Sens., Rudy Boschwitz and Cranston are Senate co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Ethiopian Jewry, of which Wilson is a member.

At about the same time as the resolution was introduced, Ethiopia withdrew its formal request to have Washington restore full diplomatic ties, which were broken in 1980 when the two countries recalled their ambassadors.

But the timing of the resolution had nothing to do with the Ethiopian move, a Wilson aide said in an interview Wednesday.

A State Department official said that the Bush administration had not reached a decision on the Ethiopian request by the time it was withdrawn. “We never said ‘yes’ and we never said ‘no’ to the Ethiopian request,” which was submitted in March, the official said.

DEMANDS ‘TANGIBLE PROGRESS’

The official added that the administration “has been willing to sit down and talk with Ethiopia on the issues that divide us.” These include human rights, economic reform, Ethiopia’s 27-year-old civil war and its “meddling in affairs” of neighboring countries.

“Those types of discussions have not yet taken place,” the official said.

The Senate resolution charges that Ethiopia “denies both emigration opportunities and foreign visitation rights to the Ethiopian Jewish community.”

Before an upgrade in relations, Ethiopia would have to make “tangible progress in human rights conditions for Ethiopian Jews, including the freedom to emigrate, travel and observe religious holidays,” the resolution stipulates.

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during the secret U.S.-Israeli Operation Moses airlifts in 1984 and 1985. But thousands more remain in Ethiopia, separated from families in Israel, Western Europe and the United States.

Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N-Y.) plans to introduce an identical resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives within the next week or two, a Solarz aide said Wednesday. Solarz and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) are the House co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Ethiopian Jewry.

The last congressional action on Ethiopian Jewry came Sept. 30, when Congress asked for human rights reports on Ethiopian every 90 days, dealing mainly with food distribution and Ethiopia’s forced resettlement of its population.

Abraham Bayer, director of international affairs at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the umbrella policy-planning group for 110 local Jewish community relations councils, declined to take a stand on the Senate resolution, while expressing “great anguish that Ethiopian Jews are not being reunited.”

‘CARROT OR ‘STICK’ APPROACH?

Similarly, Barbara Ribakove, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, would not comment on Wilson’s resolution until her group’s executive board studies the issue in the next few weeks.

Like Bayer, she said her group is “very much in favor of having the question of family reunification on the agenda between the United States and Ethiopia.”

Will Recant executive director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, initially expressed concern that the Senate resolution was too strongly worded. But in a later conversation, he said his group feels the resolution is “appropriate.”

Recant said there are “two different approaches” that can be taken by the Bush administration toward Ethiopia: “the carrot and the stick.”

The “carrot” would offer Ethiopia an upgrade in relations before it improves its treatment of Jews, Recant explained. Indeed, the Ethiopian leader, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, suggested such an approach when he was visited in March by Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Mickey Leland (D-Texas).

He told the lawmakers that if the United States upgraded relations with Ethiopia, he would improve his government’s human rights policies toward Jews.

The “stick” approach, on the other hand, “demands human rights improvements in advance,” Recant said. He praised the approach used in the Wilson resolution as “more appropriate in the dace of what the Ethiopian government has been doing.”

The Senate resolution would also require Ethiopia to end its “villagization” program, which combines small villages into larger towns for administrative purposes.

“Villagization” allows the government to distribute food assimilation of Ethiopian Jews “who have been lining separately for centuries,” said Bayer of NJCRAC.

“What is very painful for every Jew is to witness families being separated,” Bayer said. He said Ethiopian Jews depend on “tribal units that have kept them whole for centuries.”

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