NEW YORK (Jun. 23)
This week was supposed to mark the end of a glorious era in modern Jewish history.
Fourteen years after Israel launched its first dramatic rescue operation of Jews from Ethiopia, those involved in the effort had planned to close up shop, bringing the last planeload of Jews to Israel.
But efforts by the Israeli government and humanitarian groups to close down operations in the East African nation are being complicated by reports of atrocities against those still hoping to make aliyah, continuing disputes over the Jewish status of many seeking refuge and urgent pleas from those being left behind.
At the same time, there are an estimated 2,500 Jews in Kwara, near the Sudanese border, who were left off the original rescue list. Israeli government officials say their attention will now turn to them.
Also at issue is the fate of as many as 15,000 Falash Mura — Ethiopians who consider themselves Jewish but are not considered Jewish by the Israeli government. The Israeli government fears that many, if not most, will want to settle in Israel.
At the request of the Israeli government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee will close down its compound in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa by July 1.
Recent visitors to northern Ethiopian villages report that one 6-year-old Falash Mura child was burned to death when her family’s home was set on fire and that hundreds have fled from their villages. But these reports have not been confirmed by other sources and are questioned by some involved in the issue.
Meanwhile, these Falash Mura have appealed to Ethiopian Jewish activists not to abandon them.
“We would like to beg of you in the name of the God of Israel to continue your assistance for us,” they wrote to the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. “Please don’t abandon us at our time of need, at this time of suffering and grief. Please finish what you have already started.”
Debate over the Jewish status of the Falash Mura undergirds the increasingly complex situation in Ethiopia today.
The Israeli government and some Jewish humanitarian officials consider them Christians whose ancestors converted from Judaism generations ago. Others, however, say the Falash Mura didn’t actually convert to Christianity, but do not live religious Jewish lives.
Three recent visitors to several northern villages report that Falash Mura are being targeted in “pogroms” and are being burned out of their homes by their Christian neighbors who want to expropriate their property.
In separate interviews from Addis Ababa and Israel, the travelers reported that Christians have set fire to the modest huts, or tukuls, of their Falash Mura neighbors in the middle of the night, waving guns and screaming at them to go to Israel.
Barbara Ribakove Gordon, the executive director of the North American Conference, who visited the village of Buchara on June 14, was told that a 4- year-old girl was rescued from the flames of a burning tukul, and that in another village, a 6-year-old girl was burned to death.
Some 200 now-homeless Falash Mura fled from Buchara to the nearby village of Choit and are living in a barn, according to Ribakove Gordon.
Those families are among the many Falash Mura who have fled to larger villages and to two main cities, Gonder in the north and Addis Ababa in the center of the country, according to Ribakove Gordon and two other recent visitors from the Israeli-based group South Wing to Zion, all of whom collected testimony from refugees from Buchara and six other villages.
Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has spent upwards of $10 million aiding the Jews and Falash Mura of Ethiopia, is dubious of the reports of violence against the Falash Mura in the northern villages.
“There is no hard evidence to suggest that there either is, or will be an outbreak of pogroms against either Jews or Falash Mura,” said Schneider, who has sent his own team to investigate.
But several sources say that as a result of the rapidly changing situation, some Falash Mura are fleeing, which has complicated the situation in Addis Ababa, where the JDC and the North American Conference have maintained a compound, providing educational, health and other services for those waiting to immigrate to Israel.
Most of those in the compound were brought to Addis Ababa by Israeli emissaries in the process of preparing for Operation Solomon. They missed the airlift either because they didn’t arrive in the capital in time or because their applications weren’t processed in time.
Of the 14,000 Ethiopians airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon, the majority were Jews, but some 2,000 were Falash Mura, many of whom were separated from family members, according to Avi Granot, Israel’s former ambassador to Ethiopia and the current minister for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Operation Solomon followed Operation Moses, a secret airlift that began in late 1984. More than 6,000 Jews were airlifted from the Sudan, where thousands of Ethiopian Jews had trekked. That airlift was suspended by the Sudanese government when it became public.
The rescue of Ethiopian Jewry came after Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, issued a ruling in 1973 recognizing the “Falashas” as Jews who were descendants of the lost tribe of Dan.
Some 65,000 Ethiopians now live in Israel. Controversy has surrounded the question of whether Israel should be responsible for those left in Ethiopia with more questionable Jewish ties.
Amid ongoing disputes over the status of those Falash Mura at the compound in Addis Ababa, an Israeli ministerial committee last year decided to allow all of those waiting to emigrate to come to Israel and then to close down the compound.
Israel “definitely had a humanitarian responsibility for those people” because they were brought to Addis with the “belief that they are on the way to Israel” and they practiced Judaism while living in the compound, Granot said.
But Israel has no obligation to assist others, even if they have family members in Israel, because they are not Jewish, the former ambassador said.
The problem, Granot said, it that all of the 40 million Coptic Christians in Ethiopia — even the country’s prime minister — could consider themselves to be direct descendants of Jews.
Israeli is concerned that if “Israel assists them, that millions of Ethiopians would turn to the Jewish state for refuge from their country’s grinding poverty and escalating war with neighboring Eritrea.
“Addis is proving to be a road to Jerusalem,” said Granot. “Operation Solomon created a precedent that is a never-ending one.”
When the operations close down, any who believe they have a right to immigrate to Israel will have to apply to the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia the way any non-Jew would.
Others dispute the view that the stream of Falash Mura would be endless.
A survey of the country’s remaining Falash Mura in 1992 recorded about 25,000 names, said Avshalom Elitzur of South Wing to Zion. Fewer than 15,000 remain in Ethiopia, most of whom have first-degree relatives in Israel, he said.
The notion that there would be an “endless stream” of Falash Mura into Israel “is a myth cultivated in Israel by those who are trying to frighten people” who don’t like the idea of more black people there, he said.
Rabbi Moshe Waldman, the representative of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate who deals with the Ethiopian immigration, agrees.
“It is absolutely a question of color,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union who do not claim to be Jewish but have been permitted entry by Israel.
Granot said the charge of racism “is nonsense.”
The issue, he said, is that “the Falash Mura are a group of Christians.” At the same time, he said, the issue of the Falash Mura “has never been solved and I doubt it will” in the future.
In their letter pleading for help, representatives of the Falash Mura who recently fled to the capital, said, “We were forced to leave our old villages and come to Addis Ababa thus planning to leave for the Holy Land, Israel.”
“In our old villages our houses were burnt down, our cattle were looted and our daughters were forcefully taken away since we were not willing to let these people who were responsible for all the damage marry our daughters.
“They repeatedly kept asking us why we did not leave and when we would be leaving the area. And consequently, they used to beat us up and even killed some of our people,” wrote the leaders in a letter they presented to Ribakove Gordon.
What happens next is unclear.
The head of the Immigration Ministry’s Ethiopian Desk arrived last week in Ethiopia to quietly close down the camp in Addis at the end of this week. One planeload was expected to leave Thursday, bringing 200 of the 280 people still waiting to emigrate, according to the JDC.
The remaining 80 will follow next week.
The Israeli government has made it clear to JDC and NACOEJ that it expects to be the only party deciding what will happen next.
Meanwhile, JDC has agreed to shut down its operations by July 1.
It will close its medical clinic and cut its staff of nine down to two, and will provide temporary assistance to individuals who in the future obtain permission from Israel to emigrate.
Schneider described his organization as being “between a rock and a hard place.”
It is Israel’s job to reassure the Falash Mura that applications to emigrate will be taken seriously, by sending emissaries to the villages to meet with them, Schneider said.
He said the JDC would not set up aid centers without Israel’s approval because he is afraid that they will turn into “magnets” pulling Falash Mura and Jews to leave their villages without any promise of a future in Israel, and that the JDC will then be required to support them at great cost.
Meanwhile, a prominent Jewish fund-raiser said he is not certain that the aid group should be shutting down its operations, but is not yet ready to start applying pressure.
“I am disturbed by the reports” that Falash Mura are being persecuted, said Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations. Some $60 million that is raised by local Jewish federations in concert with the United Jewish Appeal is allocated to JDC each year.
“I believe that we have a fundamental, moral obligation [in Ethiopia] but I really do want to wait until all the facts are in before I make a definitive judgment,” said Kraar.
For his part, Granot said the Israeli government’s attention will now be focused on the Jews of Kwara.
A remote area bordering Sudan, Kwara is populated by some 2,500 Jews whose presence has long been known to Israeli and humanitarian aid authorities. But their names were excluded from the 1991 airlifts, apparently because of internal Ethiopian Jewish disputes.
The Israeli courts are expected to decide their status soon, said Will Recant of JDC.
Beyond Kwara, the fate of those Falash Mura seeking entry to Israel is uncertain.
For its part, NACOEJ, which has provided a secular and Jewish education to the children in the Addis compound, as well as a livelihood to adults by setting up an embroidery handicrafts factory, has decided not to abide by Israel’s instructions to shut down operations as long as people remain.
But after that, said Ribakove Gordon, “I don’t know yet what we’re going to do. What we’ve just learned represents a turning upside down of everything we had expected.”