March 29, 2007
By Uriel Heilman
Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel are served lunch at
the Gondar aid compound in February 2006.
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Following the closure of the main Jewish aid compound in Ethiopia, officials from other Jewish organizations involved in Ethiopian 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 registration.