March 29, 2007
By Ayanawo Farada Sanbatu, Haaretz Correspondent
The Ethiopian government closed a camp in Gondar province used as a community center for approximately 7,000 Falashmura Ethiopians awaiting emigration to Israel.
The Gondar camp was the last remaining emigration camp for members of the Falashmura tribe, and the decision may harm the community and complicate emigration procedures.
The Falashmura did not reside on the camp's premises, but the camp provided the community with services such as a school, a synagogue and a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. The center also provided food for the children of the community, and many members of the community were also employed by the facility as teachers and craftspeople.
Advertisement The decision to close the center will make it difficult for the Falashmura to continue functioning as a community. On Passover, for example, the community will not be able to hold a joint seder ceremonial meal as planned because they no longer have an appropriate location.
Three weeks ago, the governor of Gondar province issued a closure order on the camp, following complaints by Christian residents of the area, who claimed the camp was a public nuisance and that it was operating illegally.
The implementation of the order was delayed by organizations working for the immigration of Falashmura Ethiopians to Israel. On Monday, the province's governor rejected the organizations' appeal, and the order went into affect.
Two and a half years ago, the Ethiopian government closed the emigration camp in Addis Ababa, claiming it was operating illegally. Today, Israel absorbs 300 new immigrants from the Falashmura tribe a month.
The United Jewish Communities of North America, which operate and fund the camp, are working to overturn the decision by putting pressure on the Ethiopian embassy in Washington.
Avraham Neguise, director of the South Wing to Zion advocacy organization that works to bring Falashmura immigrants to Israel, said the UJC is also appealing to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other cabinet ministers to put pressure on the Ethiopian government to overturn the decision.
According to Neguise, if the decision is not overturned soon, new immigrants will hold a protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office.
A Jewish Agency spokesperson said that the agency is aware that proceedings are underway to appeal the decision with the Ethiopian court and that in the decision to close the camp is not overturned, the Jewish Agency will consider offering humanitarian aid to potential immigrants in Gondar province.
The Falashmura are Ethiopians who claim to have converted from Judaism to Christianity in the past, but have since returned to Judaism.
A senior official involved with immigration issues said that in recent weeks two delegations have been sent to Ethiopia to try to improve relations with the government. Ethiopian authorities have criticized the emigration activity as harming the regime's stability.