Thursday, November 23 2000
By Jerusalem Post Staff
(November 23) - Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, Ariel Kerem, is calling a medical survey that reported widespread disease and malnutrition among the Ethiopian Falash Mura a "fabrication."
"The medical statistics contained in the 'report' seem to me to be a complete fabrication, contradict all that is known, and are clearly out of context," Kerem wrote in a November 19 e-mail to The Jerusalem Post. "I don't know who the authors are, and they obviously had no contact with the only clinics providing medical care to this community."
The medical survey, which was released two weeks ago by the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, an advocacy group based in New York, was conducted by two doctors, Hana Neka-Tibeb and Tereza Fisseha, and a nutritionist, Taffesse Asfaw. All three have worked for the Ethiopian government and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organization.
The survey, which was conducted over a three-month period, found that the Falash Mura are experiencing much higher levels of hunger and disease than the general Ethiopian population. Six times more severely underweight children were found among the Falash Mura than among the general population.
"The medical professionals that conducted the survey and issued the report are specialists in evaluating malnutrition in third-world countries," said SSEJ president Eric Gomberg. "They were suggested to us by a number of leading advocacy groups including Unicef."
LAST WEEK, the United Jewish Communities released a fact-finding report at its General Assembly in Chicago that seemed to contradict the SSEJ's findings. While the UJC report called the Falash Mura "a population at risk," it also stated that "health care generally is good and nutritional status is within the acceptable range, albeit the low end of acceptability." The UJC report said that "housing is deplorable and opportunity for economic self-improvement is nonexistent."
As well as being slammed by Kerem, the SSEJ survey has come under fire from the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, both of which are funded by the UJC. The Joint provides emergency medical care in Ethiopia, and the Jewish Agency is responsible for bringing the Falash Mura to Israel and helping them be absorbed into Israeli society.
The director for immigration and absorption at the Jewish Agency, Michael Rosenberg, said: "The SSEJ report is outrageous. The facts are simply not true. There's no question that the people that wrote the report have an axe to grind." Rosenberg pointed to statements put out by the doctor for the Joint, Rick Hodes, who recently said that the death rate among the Falash Mura is equivalent to the death rate in America. While the SSEJ survey did not look at mortality, its findings seem to suggest that the mortality rate is higher than in America.
"The medical situation in the compounds is at least under control," Rosenberg said. "There's certainly no starvation among this population."
ALSO AT issue is the number of Falash Mura who are eligible to immigrate to Israel. The SSEJ, as well as leaders of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform groups in America, say that all 26,000 should be found eligible for aliya, while the Jewish Agency puts the number at 8,000, including 1,750 people who have already come to Israel this year. Eligibility is determined by the Ministry of the Interior.
In an e-mail, Kerem stated that "only 5.5% will be found to be eligible for aliya, not on the basis of any Jewishness, but by virtue of Jewish relatives in Israel, a large number of whom are converts." Other Ethiopian advocacy groups, including the South Wing to Zion and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, have come out in support of the SSEJ's findings. In his e-mail, Kerem called NACOEJ "an advocacy organization which has already demonstrated a lack of honesty and a twisting of the facts to suit its purposes."
"We have written statements from leaders of the three major streams of Judaism in the US to the effect that this Jewish community should be brought to Israel and that American Jews should give them our assistance while they are still in Ethiopia, which is exactly what NACOEJ has been doing in a long, lonely battle to keep them alive," the executive director of NACOEJ, Barbara Ribikove Gordon, said. NACOEJ provides daily lunches for 5,000 children in Ethiopia.
Among leaders and organizations who have voiced support for bringing all 26,000 Falash Mura to Israel are the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Kenneth Hain; the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Jerome Epstein; the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; former chief rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliahu, and the head of the National Religious Party, Yitzhak Levy.
Last week, Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel called attention to the plight of the Falash Mura during his opening speech on Jewish solidarity at the UJC's General Assembly.
"What about the 27,000 Falash Muras who are sick, starving, and desperately in need of solidarity?" said Wiesel. "Are we going to abandon them there? Is this Jewish solidarity?"
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