Falash Mura compound shut


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Following the closure of the main Jewish aid compound
in Ethiopia, officials from other Jewish organizations involved in
immigration said they would work to avert a humanitarian crisis.Some 7,000
Falash Mura waiting to immigrate to Israel were left without welfare
services in the wake of the compound’s closure on March 19 by Ethiopian authorities. Located
in the city of Gondar, the compound provides schooling and Jewish
education, as well as some food aid and employment assistance, to the
Falash Mura who live in adjacent neighborhoods.The facility is
funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, but has
been run by intermediaries ever since the New York-based group was
barred from operating in Ethiopia following legal troubles
two-and-a-half years ago.Those legal problems and a dispute
with the local community forced the closure of NACOEJ’s other Ethiopian
aid compound, in Addis Ababa, in late 2004; that compound remains
closed.”The Beta Israel feeding and education compounds were
ordered closed on Monday, March 19,” NACOEJ’s director of operations,
Orlee Guttman, told JTA, using the Ethiopian appellation for the Falash
Mura. “We hope they will reopen very soon.” NACOEJ does not sponsor any aid facilities in Ethiopia other than the multi-site Gondar compound.The closure appears to have been prompted by a fight
among locals interested in control over the substantial aid money being
spent there — an estimated $1 million per year in a desperately
impoverished country where most people make about $1 per day — and
greater say over who is and who is not eligible for aliyah.This
despite the fact that community leaders have no say in determining who
is eligible to immigrate to Israel and that American Jewish groups have
pledged not to fund any renegade communal leadership. “It is
my understanding that there are competing factions within the Ethiopian
community itself who have called into question the leadership of the
compounds,” said the United Jewish Communities’ senior vice president for Israel and overseas
affairs, Doron Krakow, who happened to be in Gondar the day the
compound was shuttered. “Those who are interested in impugning the
local leadership of the compound are looking for any way possible to
knock these guys out.”Meanwhile, officials from other Jewish organizations said they would monitor the situation closely.

“Should there be a
humanitarian need to feed those who are eligible for aliyah, the Jewish
Agency will take action in order to feed and provide for the welfare of
these people,” said a spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which
manages immigration to Israel from Ethiopia.Officials at the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides the Falash
Mura with medical care, and the United Jewish Communities federation
umbrella group, which sponsors aid operations for the Falash Mura, have
given similar assurances.

After the closure of the Addis Ababa compound, the UJC, JDC and Jewish
Agency established contingency plans. Krakow said similar plans are
being prepared for Gondar should the compound remain closed, but said,
“We have let the various authorities know that we’re eager to see the
compound restored.” This
is not the first crisis for the Gondar facility. Last May, the
compound’s local director, Getu Zemene, was arrested following an
internecine dispute over control of the compound, and the facility was
shut down for a few days. Zemene was soon released and the compound was
reopened. Several weeks ago, however, Ethiopian authorities
issued a formal order to close the Gondar compound, and the directive
was carried out last week. Calls this week to Zemene’s
telephone in Ethiopia went unanswered, but Guttman attributed the
closure order to local Ethiopians deemed ineligible for aliyah who are
trying to stir up trouble for those eligible to immigrate to Israel. The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors
converted to Christianity several years ago to escape economic and
social pressures. They and their families now are turning to Judaism in
a bid to come to Israel, and they have been emigrating at a rate of 300
per month.Since
the 1990s, the prospect of immigration to Israel has prompted tens of
thousands of Ethiopian farmers and craftsmen to leave their rural
villages and relocate to Gondar, where the Israeli Interior Ministry
verifies their eligibility for aliyah.Many of them have found
the move to the city difficult and availed themselves of local Jewish
aid services. NACOEJ heralds these operations as a bulwark against
penury and starvation.Others, however, argue that the aid has
fostered the development of a welfare-dependent population, encouraging
the impoverishing move to the city and hindering the Falash Mura from
developing independent sources of food and income in Gondar.While
the Israeli government estimates that some 7,000 Falash Mura remain in
Ethiopia, some advocates of Ethiopian aliyah contend that the number is
more than twice that.In the past, locals have tried to wrest
control of the Gondar compound through allegations of corruption,
intimidation and violence, and armed guards had been stationed at some
of the facilities’ entrances.Similar problems, along with a
dispute between local employees and NACOEJ’s directorship, led to the
closure of NACOEJ’s Addis Ababa aid compound in late 2004. NACOEJ
officials maintained the charges against them — including unfair labor
practices, nonpayment of wages and physical abuse by a NACOEJ employee
— were false.The group was ousted from the country after
Ethiopian authorities determined that NACOEJ avoided local tax
obligations by operating in Ethiopia without official sanction or

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