JERUSALEM, May 23 (JTA) — The arrest of the local director of the Jewish aid compound in the Ethiopian city of Gondar is prompting growing concern about the future of thousands of Falash Mura waiting to immigrate to Israel. The arrest last week of the official, Getu Zemene, led to the temporary closure of the Gondar aid compound, a multisite facility that provides schooling, some food and some employment to an estimated 9,000 Falash Mura in the city. An additional 4,000 or so Falash Mura awaiting aliyah live in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where the local Jewish aid compound has been closed since an internecine dispute there a year and a half ago forced Ethiopian authorities to intervene. That conflict prompted the Ethiopian government to bar the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which ran the aid compounds, from operating in Ethiopia. Zemene said the turmoil in Addis — and elements in Gondar who he said want to wrest control of the compound from the community — led to his arrest. “There are people who are making problems in Gondar, but these are people who are not eligible” for aliyah, “and they want us to close the compound,” Zemene told JTA in a telephone interview from Ethiopia. “The accusation was related to NACOEJ and the problems in Addis Ababa.” Zemene was released from jail the day after his arrest, and he returned to a celebratory welcome last Friday outside the Gondar compound, where thousands of supporters turned out to greet him. The aid compound has since reopened, and Zemene said he does not face criminal charges. The problems in Gondar underscore the climate of uncertainty faced by the Falash Mura left in Ethiopia, some of whom have been waiting up to eight years for permission from Israel to immigrate. In the meantime, they have become an aid-dependent population, having left their rural homes and livelihoods to live in squalid neighborhoods of Gondar and Addis Ababa near where Israeli government officials determine their eligibility for aliyah. It’s not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia. The Falash Mura, who call themselves Beta Israel, are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Turned away when Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews out of Africa in Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, these Beta Israel have since begun returning to Jewish practices in a bid to move to the Jewish state. Israel began accepting Falash Mura immigrants in the mid-1990s. Since an Israeli Cabinet decision in February 2003 to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia to Israel, some 300 Falash Mura are being brought to Israel each month. An Israeli government decision more than a year ago to double the pace of aliyah for up to 20,000 remaining Falash Mura has not been implemented. While the Israeli government tarries — an Israeli High Court order three weeks ago gave the government 60 days to provide a detailed plan for the expedited aliyah — the number of Ethiopians claiming Jewish ancestry or eligibility for aliyah continues to grow. The Interior Ministry has yet to finalize the list of those eligible to immigrate. “A year later we’re in the same place we were a year ago,” Ori Konforti, the senior official in Ethiopia for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for immigration to Israel, told JTA in Ethiopia three months ago. “I think if we don’t close the list, we may well still be here in another 10 years.” This week, the United Jewish Communities, which pledged a year ago to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption as part of its Operation Promise campaign, led a delegation of some 65 UJC officials and federation leaders to Ethiopia. UJC officials say they hope the money they’re raising will prompt the Israeli government to begin its expedited aliyah program. By speeding up immigration, some aid officials say, Israel will be able to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian aliyah, which has been an expensive process for the state. With a benefits package that includes long stays in Israeli absorption centers, generous housing grants and a broad array of social services, the average Ethiopian immigrant costs the Israeli government about $100,000 over the course of his lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. As part of the process of launching the expedited aliyah, the Jewish Agency is slated to take over control of the aid compounds from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry — which, though it doesn’t maintain an official presence in Ethiopia, funds the Gondar compound. Because of the ongoing dispute in Addis Ababa, the conference has not been able to reopen the aid compound there. “The community does not want what happened to the Addis Ababa compound to happen in Gondar,” said the conference’s director of operations, Orlee Guttman. Guttman said the conference is eager for the Jewish Agency to take control of the compounds. “We look forward to the Jewish Agency’s involvement and have been repeatedly requesting their help for the past year, as they have a lot more money than we do and can provide important job training and more food than we can,” Guttman said. “Thus far, the Jewish Agency has not provided any indication of when they will take over the compound, other than to say they have to wait for the Israeli government to give them permission.” Within the Israeli government, every ministry seems to have a different excuse for why the expedited aliyah hasn’t begun. One government official said the operation is being held up because the funding hasn’t been approved yet in this year’s budget, the Jewish Agency is ill-prepared to absorb the immigrants and there is no detailed agreement with the Ethiopian government over the particulars of the operation. But the Foreign Ministry says it signed a deal with the Ethiopian government last fall. The Jewish Agency maintains that it is ready but has not been given a green light from the Israeli government. The Finance Ministry says it allocated an additional $45 million for the accelerated aliyah in this year’s budget, although the budget has yet to be approved by the Knesset. “The problem is being prepared for them on the ground,” said Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Interior Ministry. Bringing a deluge of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel right now would cause a lot more distress than comfort, she said.
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Uriel Heilman is JTA's managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA's editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.