Menu JTA Search

Rabbi pledges Christian funds to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel

NEW YORK, Feb. 9 (JTA) — Up to $2 million donated by evangelical Christians will redeem the Jews of Kwara, Ethiopia, and bring them to Israel. The sum has been promised by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. His offer has been accepted by the government of Israel, an official confirmed. Eckstein’s offer came with two conditions: that all the Kwara Jews — believed to number between 2,500 and 3,000 — be brought to Israel within six months, and that the source of the money be publicly acknowledged. Between 1984 and today, an estimated 45,000 Ethiopians have arrived in Israel, including some 14,000 during Israel’s dramatic Operation Solomon in 1991. But those from the remote northern region of Kwara were left off official Operation Solomon lists because of a long-standing feud among Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders. The following year, some 3,500 Jews from Upper Kwara made their way to Israel. However, the 3,000 or so in neighboring Lower Kwara were essentially forgotten. After an article in The Jerusalem Report last summer brought their plight to public attention, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly pledged to bring them to Israel. Unlike the estimated 15,000 Falash Mura, who also seek entry to Israel but whose Jewishness is in question, the Kwara Jews are recognized by the Israeli government as Jewish. But little has happened to bring them to Israel, say those involved with the issue. Fewer than 200 have been given permission to go to Israel from Lower Kwara, and an estimated 1,000 Jews from that region are living in squalor just outside of the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, say some who have visited the area in recent months. The rest remain in Lower Kwara, though more have begun to sell their farmland and huts to neighbors and stream toward Gondar, said Eckstein, a Chicago-based Orthodox rabbi whose longtime work in interfaith affairs led to his involvement with the evangelical community. Last October, Eckstein quietly approached representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel with his offer. The agency, which flies Jews to Israel once they are granted permission for entry to Israel — and then helps absorb them — has called on the government to expedite the process. The agency is “committed to bring them home to Israel at the fastest possible speed,” said an agency spokeswoman. Israel’s Interior Ministry, whose staff evaluates and processes applicants for aliyah, had estimated that it would take 18 months to bring the remaining Kwara Jews to Israel, according to Avi Granot, minister of public affairs for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Insufficient staff — particularly the fact that a single clerk at the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem has been evaluating and processing the applications — was to blame, said Granot, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia from 1995 to 1998.
The 18-month plan was too long for Eckstein, whose 16-year-old organization builds Christian support for Israel and promotes greater understanding between Jews and Christians. “It’s unconscionable that these Beta Israel should be languishing in Kwara and Gondar,” Eckstein said in a phone interview last week. “There are people dying almost daily from diseases which can be cured in Israel,” he said. He said he told the Jewish Agency: “If finances are an issue, then the Christian community will take care of it.” Eckstein’s offer was not unprecedented. In 1998 the International Fellowship donated $7 million to the United Jewish Appeal — funds slated specifically to underwrite the cost of flying Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. It has given a total of about $17 million to UJA for that cause over the last several years. At first, Eckstein said, he got no definitive response to his offer to help the Ethiopians. “Everyone was dodging it and no one could get a handle on where the problem was,” Eckstein said. Finally, in early February, Eckstein got his answer. Part of the reason for the delay, Eckstein believes, was reluctance on the part of Israeli officials to accept dollars from evangelical Christians. “A couple of individuals in Israel’s government are not enthralled with the idea of accepting funds from Christians for aliyah, though these funds are given unconditionally, without any strings attached,” he said. Granot denied that such an attitude existed. “There was no ambivalence about accepting it in Israel. There were practical questions about whether the government can hire people and get the money for it from an outside source,” Granot said. “In any case it was not viewed as a private donation, but one to the UJA campaign. This is not the first time that money has been given to Israel, to aliyah purposes, from non-Jewish sources,” he said. The International Fellowship’s contribution “is significant and is very welcome,” Granot said. Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a humanitarian aid group operating in Ethiopia, said she is comfortable with the idea of accepting the money as long as there is no Christian proselytizing involved. Still, she said, “it’s a sad state of affairs when the Jewish community can’t afford to rescue its own people.” Granot disagreed, noting that the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, with support from Jewish donations abroad, funded years of aliyah from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. In addition, he said, Israel and the Jews have “for years taken care of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews” in Israel. In any case, getting the Jews out of the area has taken on new urgency as tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a country to Ethiopia’s north, again flare up. Gondar is about 180 miles south of the Eritrean border and transportation between the northern city and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, from which flights leave twice weekly for Israel, is being cut as the military commandeers the airport, Ribakove Gordon said. What’s more, she said, once the rainy season begins in May, Kwara becomes totally inaccessible for several months. Getting the Kwara Jews to Israel “will get more difficult if action isn’t taken very, very fast.” For his part, Eckstein said that although he hasn’t yet solicited specific donations for the redemption of Kwara Jews, he is confident that his constituents would pay for it as part of their “biblical mandate” to be a blessing to the Jewish people. “I’m going on blind faith,” Eckstein said. “My kishkes tell me that the Christian community will come through for this.”