Groups Upset at the Slow Progress in Bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel

For the past year, the Israeli government has pledged that it would step up its efforts to bring a group of Jews remaining in Ethiopia to Israel.

Disappointed with Israel’s progress on this front, and concerned about the welfare of emigrant hopefuls waiting in limbo, some American Jews, and even American Christians, have coupled their vocal advocacy with direct financial support.

Last month the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston donated $15,000 to help feed Jews from the Kwara region in northern Ethiopia who are waiting to emigrate. The funds will go to the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a New York-based non-profit organization that assists the Ethiopian community in Israel and provides humanitarian relief in Ethiopia.

In February, a Chicago-based interfaith foundation pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to enable Israel’s Interior Ministry to expedite the processing of Kwara Jews’ applications to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel.

Israel has recognized the right of the Kwara Jews to immigrate — in contrast to the estimated 15,000 or more Falash Mura, who consider themselves Jewish, but are not accepted legally as Jews by the Israeli government.

The election of Ehud Barak has raised hopes in America, but the place of Kwara Jews on his administration’s agenda has yet to be determined.

Despite recent signs of activity and Israeli assurances that the numbers of Kwara Jews coming to Israel will soon increase, American groups that have been monitoring the situation are growing impatient to see results.

“I long ago stopped believing in speeches and stopped believing in `You’ll see.’ I just want to see numbers of people on planes,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the foundation in Chicago.

“That, for me at this point, is the only criteria I will use to determine whether or not they are coming out: how many are on the plane to Israel.”

The estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Kwara Jews were left off the registers of legal immigrants airlifted out of Ethiopia as part of Operation Solomon in 1991.

Today some 900 have gathered outside of Gondar City, where an Israeli Consulate is located.

Thousands of Falash Mura have also congregated there, and some observers have counted as many as 5,000 people gathered near Gondar, in conditions that have been described by relief agency officials as “appalling” and “awful.”

On several occasions over the past year, the Israeli government pledged to representatives of the American Jewish community that it would work to expedite the evacuation of Kwara Jews.

At the General Assembly of Jewish community federations last November, Israeli officials promised to make relocating Kwara Jews a priority. Israel’s absorption minister, Yuli Edelstein, reiterated that commitment in a February conference call organized by the association of federations, now known as the United Jewish Communities.

Israel’s goal, he reportedly said during the call, was to move 200 Kwara Jews each month, with the eventual hope of relocating every Kwara Jew who wishes to come by the end of 1999.

Nearly 100 Kwara Jews arrived in Israel in May, an influx that more than doubled the number of arrivals in April, a meager 35.

Representatives of Israel’s government in the past have cited staff and budget limitations as the primary reasons for the delay in processing the Kwara Jews’ immigration applications.

Despite the fact that Kwara Jews’ right to immigrate is beyond doubt, questions arise when determining who is a Kwara Jew.

Because of fraud and forged documents, every application must be validated, a time-consuming and labor-intensive procedure, said Avi Granot, the minister of public and interreligious affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia from 1995 to 1998.

This process involves verifying each person’s name and village of origin, and double-checking with relatives in Israel when possible, he said.

An initial donation of $100,000 made by the Eckstein’s group enabled Israel’s Interior Ministry last month to hire additional staff specifically for this purpose. The group pledged a total of $500,000 to help cover the costs of bringing Kwara Jews to Israel.

Eckstein said his interfaith fellowship has raised an additional $1 million in the past few weeks specifically for Ethiopian Jews.

In May, an official of Israel’s Interior Ministry began work in Ethiopia interviewing about 151 families — or 638 individuals — to begin their application procedures.

Last week, Granot said, 100 more Kwara Jews had been approved for aliyah. If activity continues on that level, he said, “then it could come to a situation where 200 or even more” Kwara Jews could emigrate each month. “There is no shortage of available flights,” he said.

As a further indication of Israel’s intent to follow through with its prolonged commitment, the absorption center in the Israeli town of Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem, was reopened expressly for Kwara Jews expected within the next four months.

It has room for 1,000 people. So far, 66 have taken residence.

Clive Lessem, New York representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the agency “remains committed to rescuing any Jews from Ethiopia to Israel within two weeks of receiving government authorization.”

Flights of Kwara Jews are now expected to leave Ethiopia for Israel every two weeks.

These hopeful signs, however, have not yet dispelled concerns that even at this rate the 3,500 Kwara Jews will languish in Ethiopia waiting to board a plane to Ben-Gurion Airport.

Until now, “I don’t think the political will has been there in Jerusalem,” said Martin Raffel, the associate executive vice chair and director of international concerns for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups and local Jewish community relations councils.

The JCPA has held regular conference calls with Israeli government officials and representatives of the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for resettling Jews in Israel, NACOEJ and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to update its members on the latest developments regarding the Kwara Jews.

“Israel over and over has shown that when it wants to take effective action it can do it,” Raffel said in a telephone interview. “It brought over a medical unit to Kosovo on short-term notice and performed remarkably well. Israelis are a can-do people.”

For his part, Eckstein is keeping his optimism in check.

“Whether all this will be able to speed up the process from now on remains to be seen,” he said.

Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s CJP, said in a telephone interview that the Jewish community in Boston is sympathetic to the Israeli government’s constraints, “but we’re sympathetic too to the hungry people on the ground.”

Barbara Ribakove Gordon, the executive director of NACOEJ, said her organization has been providing $5,000 worth of tef, a grain for making bread, per month to about 4,400 people living near Gondar.

But more people are coming every day, she said. “We don’t have the budget to take on thousands more in Gondar.”

The Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide relief organization based in New York, is providing emergency food rations and overseeing medical clinics in Gondar and in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where between 8,000 and 10,000 Falash Mura are waiting in the hope of moving to Israel.

Ethiopian doctors working for the JDC also make periodic site visits in the Kwara region.

NACOEJ and the JDC are the only organizations providing such humanitarian relief, according to officials from those organizations.

Ribakove Gordon said the money from the Boston Jewish community could buy more grain and help “provide eggs and other essential nutrition for children.”

The Boston community hopes to propel other local Jewish communities toward similar action. Its Jewish Community Relations Council has issued a public statement expressing disappointment with the way Israeli authorities have handled the issue so far.

“With the meager numbers of people coming out of Ethiopia, it will take a few years before they all come out,” Barbara Gaffin, the JCRC’s associate director said in a telephone interview.

“Conditions in Ethiopia are so difficult that we may lose a lot of lives.”

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