As Falash Mura Wait to Leave, Disputes at Compound Escalate

The Ethiopian government has intervened in a political dispute roiling an Addis Ababa compound housing Falash Mura, Ethiopian descendants of Jews who are waiting to immigrate to Israel. Ethiopia’s justice minister was accompanied by police officers carrying firearms when he entered the compound Jan. 5, threatening to take away authority from the local community, sources close to the community said.

Ethiopians Getenet Mengesha — who joined the minister in the attempted takeover — and Yoseph Enyew say the compounds are run like sweatshops by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, the Jerusalem Post first reported.

“The government has made up its mind to kick out NACOEJ,” Enyew told JTA. He also called NACOEJ a “mafia-like” organization and said the government plans to imprison the group’s workers.

Ethiopian government officials could not be reached for comment.

Andrew Goldman, NACOEJ’s Ethiopian representative, said he had heard that the justice minister claimed the group is operating illegally, but said neither NACOEJ nor its lawyer had received any notice to that effect. He denied that NACOEJ had done anything illegal.

Last week’s showdown was the latest in a series of battles for control over the fate of the 20,000 or so Falash Mura, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity but now have returned to Jewish practice.

The Israeli Cabinet voted in February 2003 to look into Falash Mura applicants immediately to see which among them are eligible to immigrate to Israel by virtue of matrilineal Jewish descent.

Yet the process has puttered along, with Israel sometimes citing the high cost of absorbing the Falash Mura, given the tremendous social and cultural gap separating them from other Israelis.

Some 300 Falash Mura make aliyah each month, but pressure to open the gates wider is mounting.

Last month, about half of the 120 members of Israel’s Knesset called on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to expedite the Falash Mura immigration.

Falash Mura already in Israel are waging a court battle against the government to speed up the process. In response, Sharon is slated to meet Jan. 31 with Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has asked Israel to double the monthly Falash Mura aliyah.

Some local Jewish federations across North America have made the issue a priority and have pressed Sharon on the matter. Events on the ground also have escalated.

Ethiopian television last month aired the allegations of mismanagement against NACOEJ, which supervises the community-run compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar.

“They have been exploiting the people for the past 13 years” and have stopped distributing food in the past five months, Enyew said.

Additionally, he claimed that NACOEJ’s Goldman beats up people, and that the group has photographed young girls’ naked chests and posted the pictures on the Internet.

Goldman calls the accusations lies. The group says they stem from the frustration of teachers, many of whom are not Jewish but are married to Jews, who realize they won’t be eligible for aliyah.

NACOEJ officials said they couldn’t explain the actions of Enyew and Mersha.

In September, 70 teachers at the Addis Ababa compound went on strike, made false accusations against NACOEJ and refused to work out an agreement, according to Goldman.

“I’m convinced that the whole thing was just to make trouble,” he said.

They then sued the school, which is under the control of local Falash Mura and supervised by NACOEJ, for severance pay.

Meanwhile, NACOEJ says that Enyew has claimed to have the backing of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides medical relief and supplemental feeding programs to Falash Mura in Ethiopia, in setting up a rival group to NACOEJ.

Enyew says he has no connection to the JDC and is not interested in setting up another organization, only in calling for the Jewish community to investigate NACOEJ.

In an e-mail to NACOEJ’s executive director, Barbara Ribakove Gordon, JDC Executive Vice President Steven Schwager dismissed Enyew’s claim as baseless.

According to Ricki Leiberman, NACOEJ’s chief operating officer, the situation speaks to a mounting level of frustration among the Falash Mura.

“You know, there’s a lot of tension. Some people are not going to go” to Israel, she said, “and we fully expect that they will make difficulties and be disruptive.”

The “faster we get the eligible community out of there, the more we will reduce the opportunity for turmoil,” she said, placing the onus on the American Jewish community to lobby Israeli officials and Israel to expedite the process.

Observers are inclined to take NACOEJ’s side, but seem perplexed by the politics at play.

John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and co-chairman of the federation system’s committee on the Falash Mura, visited the compounds two years ago and said he saw nothing that would substantiate the charges against NACOEJ.

However, he acknowledged, “you can’t be an expert on something in a four-day visit.”

Some suggest the unrest is externally motivated — by Israeli officials or others who oppose Falash Mura aliyah.

They say the airing of charges against NACOEJ, and the access to seemingly classified footage that aired in the Ethiopian television show, are evidence of a sophisticated public relations operation.

Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, takes issue with that idea.

“I don’t know what is going on in Addis Ababa, but it seems strange to me to assert that Ethiopian state televison needs Israelis to tell them what’s going on,” he said.

“It’s bureaucrats within Israel and Jewish organizations who disagree with the February ’03 unanimous Cabinet decision to bring the Falash Mura, and are finding unsavory ways and unethical ways of reversing the will of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people,” said Yosef Abramowitz, who has done award-winning reporting on Ethiopian Jewry.

“Every time there’s a political push for progress, there’s simultaneously a smear campaign against NACOEJ,” he said.

Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a specialist in Ethiopian Jewish history and a member of the Israeli chief rabbinate committee on Ethiopian absorption, said the disputes have been stoked by enemies of the Falash Mura community.

They try to “cut the connection between these people and Eretz Israel and Judaism and their leaders,” he said.

But who might the Falash Mura’s “enemies” be?

Among them, Waldman says, are JDC officials who he says equate the Falash Mura with gentiles.

Enyew denied that the JDC had aided his efforts — in fact, he complained about their lack of support — and JDC officials also dismissed the accusations.

“JDC has no position nor stance nor opinion on issues of eligibility for aliyah to Israel,” said Amir Shaviv, the group’s assistant executive vice president. “We would like to see this population processed rapidly and reach its destination.”

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