Government and Jewish Agency officials confirmed today that large numbers of Ethiopian Jews — probably the vast majority of that community estimated at about 25,000 — are now in Israel.
Details of a secret airlift and absorption process were disclosed at a hastily called press conference in Jerusalem after the local media broke the story which had been subject to military censorship until now. The officials appeared to have been taken by surprise by these accounts, but readily confirmed their accuracy.
Akiva Levinsky, Deputy Chairman and Treasurer of the Jewish Agency who is the ranking official of the Agency in the country at the moment, said about 10,000 Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel recently.
Israel Radio had reported earlier that the rescue operation, begun during the administration of former Premier Menachem Begin’s Likud government, was speeded up last November because of the famine in Ethiopia.
MANY REPORTED IN VERY POOR HEALTH
Levinsky said a special absorption center was established in Ashkelon for the newcomers and that they are receiving medical care there and at hospitals throughout southern Israel. According to doctors, many of the new arrivals, particularly children, are in very poor health.
They are suffering from malnutrition and various diseases common to Africa which local physicians say they have not seen since leaving medical school. Some are contagious and special care is being taken to make sure they do not spread to the rest of the population.
Newspaper accounts today listed intestinal disorders, skin infections, malaria and some cases of tuberculosis among the Ethiopians. One doctor was quoted as saying the newcomers resembled the Jews Liberated from Nazi death camps after World War II.
Medical sources said they were responding well to treatment. But one of the problems facing doctors is the language barrier. Most of the Ethiopian Jews speak only Amharic. Doctors and nurses have been provided with a short vocabulary of key words and phrases in that little known language.
HOW THE STORY BROKE
The story of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews broke yesterday when the Gush Emunim magazine, Nekuda, published an interview with Yehuda Dominitz, head of the Jewish Agency’s immigration department. He was quoted as saying that virtually all of Ethiopia’s Jews are now in Israel. It is not known how many remain in Ethiopia.
The rest of the media elaborated on the story today. According to newspaper accounts, the Ethiopian Jews are being housed throughout the country and in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Unaccompanied children, some of them orphans, have been taken by Youth Aliya.
The Jewish Agency apparently decided not to place the Ethiopians in kibbutzim which are largely secular. The Ethiopian Jews are strictly religious in outlook and customs.
Some newspapers published accounts of the secret airlift alongside a report by syndicated Washington columnist Jack Anderson that Israel was helping to train the Ethiopian army, although it has no diplomatic relations with the Marxist government in Addis Ababa. The papers did not draw any linkage between the rescue and Anderson’s report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.