NEW YORK (JTA) – The cold, rainy season in northwestern Ethiopia is at its peak, adding to the misery of thousands of Jews who recently have learned that Israel intends to abandon them in Ethiopia and that funds essential to their survival have run out.
When the rains stop and malaria mosquitoes breed in the puddles, some of the most poorly nourished – usually women and children – will die.
Why the current administration in Jerusalem has decided to create a policy so harsh and so opposed to previous Israeli policies, which brought home thousands of Ethiopian Jews, is puzzling.
The high cost of absorbing poor Jews from Africa has been cited and demolished repeatedly: Israel’s economy actually is doing better now than when prior administrations brought other big “aliyot.” Bringing in the last remnant of Ethiopian Jews – a mere 8,700 Jews, or as many of them as qualify for aliyah – will hardly break the bank.
It also has been alleged that as children and grandchildren of Jews who made pro forma conversions to Christianity in times of great hunger and persecution, the Falash Mura, as this segment is sometimes called, are not real Jews.
But three Israeli chief rabbis, Ethiopian religious leaders in Israel, and leaders of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams in the United States all say they are Jews. In Israel, they go through a formal conversion process mandated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar only to silence all possible doubts as to their Jewishness. Amar holds that those of Jewish maternal lineage, which is required for this aliyah, are already Jews “without any doubt.”
Incidentally, other would-be immigrants are permitted to make aliyah just by having a Jewish grandparent on either the father’s or the mother’s side. For Ethiopian Jews, only those whose mother’s mother is Jewish are allowed to immigrate.
Some opponents claim the absorption in Israel of Ethiopian Jews has been a failure.
But it is not a failure. Though there are serious challenges, especially among older people, the aliyah only 20-odd years old already has produced thousands of college graduates, army heroes, lawyers, scientists, social workers, teachers, artists, government officials, Knesset members, a deputy consul general and even a former shepherdess now doing post-doctoral studies at Harvard.
More are to come – but only if more live to come.
Until now, the only organization providing regular, long-term nutrition – along with education, religious facilities and more – has been the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. This small Jewish charity based in New York has a 26-year-record of assistance to Ethiopian Jews in Africa and Israel.
Lately the charity’s work in Ethiopia has depended significantly on Operation Promise, the 2004 campaign conducted by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry.
At virtually the same time that Israel announced its intention to walk away from the remaining Jews in Ethiopia, the UJC announced that the Operation Promise funds it has raised had dried up. UJC has asked Jewish federations to consider continued funding for the feeding programs in Ethiopia, but few have come forth thus far. We hope more will meet the challenge.
The prospects are not quite hopeless.
Israel has announced the end of the Ethiopian aliyah five times, but always has been overruled by the better angels of history, conscience and Zionism.
Last month, the Knesset voted 44-1 to keep the aliyah open, and a group of Cabinet ministers advised Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a private meeting to bring in some 1,400 remaining Jews listed on a previous census, following the Supreme Court’s suggestion.
We do not yet know exactly how, or even if, this group will be screened for aliyah, agreed upon and brought to Israel, and we don’t know how the community still in Ethiopia will be fed while the process limps along.
But Israel was born to be a haven for Jews, including the Ethiopians, and the gates will open again.
It will be Diaspora Jewry’s job to keep them alive in the meantime.
(Barbara Ribakove Gordon is the founder and executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.)