Pressuring Israel on Ethiopian Aliyah

Twelve Jews died in Ethiopia this summer — two of famine, 10 of mostly treatable medical conditions — and Dick Giesberg wants to know what it says about the Zionist imperative when the Israeli government refuses to expedite the immigration of a suffering Jewish community.

"I’m not going to use the word racism — I don’t think that is the problem," said Giesberg, a founder and past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which is serving 10,000 meals a day in drought-stricken Ethiopia. "I think this is a difficult group of people to absorb and Israel has so many problems that they don’t want to face up to the Zionist dream. But if you are a Zionist these people must come and must come as fast as possible."

Giesberg, a Los Angeles resident who with his wife Middie headed up the first North American mission to Ethiopian Jewish villages through Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation in 1981, is urging American Jewry to pressure the Israeli government and to demand that the United Jewish Communities (UJC) allocate $5 million for the next 2 years in emergency funding for the Falash Mura, the last remnant in Ethiopia of Beta Israel, or Ethiopian Jews.

The Falash Mura were left behind in Beta Israel’s dramatic aliyah in 1984 and 1991 because they or their ancestors converted under duress to Christianity in the last century. Most were never accepted as Christians and while they lived separately from Beta Israel, they were still considered Jews. About 65 percent of them have first-degree relatives in Israel.

In February 2003, the Interior Ministry decided to expedite immigration of all Falsh Mura, but elections soon after that decision brought a new interior minister, Avraham Poraz from the secular Shinnui Party. He froze the process, saying that Israel couldn’t afford to bring in so many impoverished, uneducated immigrants.

While 20,000 Falash Mura have already moved to Israel under the provision of the Law of Return that allows anyone with one Jewish parent or grandparent to receive citizenship, most of the 20,000 Falash Mura still in Ethiopia can trace a Jewish great-grandparent, but not a grandparent. The February Knesset decision required that the government undertake inspections to establish their maternal linkage to Jewish ancestors, but none of those inspections have begun. The chief rabbi estimates that 90 percent of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia can establish the maternal linkage, and they currently practices the normative Orthodox Judaism they have been taught by relief organizations.

The government’s failure to begin the inspections does more than simply delay aliyah. The Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the world Jewry arm of the UJC, will not include in their medical care programs anyone who has not been certified by the Interior Ministry, leaving 5,000-6,000 people without medical care.

William Recant, assistant executive vice president of the JDC, says they are simply awaiting the same process as the others who have been streaming out of the villages for 10 years at the urging of advocates who say that going to the compounds in Addis and Gondar will expedite aliyah.

There are around 20,000 Falash Mura living in compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar City, where the JDC and NACOEJ provide food, medical care and Jewish education. Conditions are slum-like, with up to 15 people living in mud huts with no amenities, no income and little food. With the current famine, food prices have gone up dramatically.

The World Health Organization recently warned that a malaria epidemic is likely.

"At the moment we are in desperate need of further assistance in feeding them, just to enable them to survive this famine," said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of NACOEJ.

Ethiopian Israelis have been demonstrating in front of the Knesset for the last several months, and American groups, including the Reform and Conservative movements, have been stepping up pressure on Israel.

In April some 40 members of Congress sent a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a recent delegation urged Sharon to force Poraz to move on the issue, pointing out that Poraz asked for $10 million less than in previous years for U.S. aid for absorption, since there was a lower than expected number of immigrants to Israel.

Joseph Feit, a past president of NACOEJ, calls Poraz’s unwillingness to accept the Falash Mura antithetical to a Zionist philosophy of welcoming all Jews.

"I’m not accusing anybody of racism, but it’s clear that if these people were Western Europeans with doctorates, their return to Judaism would have been celebrated as a triumph of Jewish renaissance and renewal, and they would have been in Israel 12 years ago," Feit said.