Jews in Crisis IV

The long and sorrowful story of the Falash Mura is a blightand a blessing on our community.

On the one hand, our apathy, politics and ignorance — yes,mine and yours — has allowed 18,000 souls to suffer needlessly, all butforgotten in a fetid corner of Africa.

On the other, a handful of people — it is always a savingremnant, a righteous few — pressed the case of these Jews in America andIsrael, and is closer than ever to achieving their rescue.

On Feb. 16, Israel’s previously ruling Cabinet agreed toexpedite the immigration of Falash Mura to Israel from Ethiopia. The rulingaffirms Israel’s responsibility to these people, but it also raises significantquestions. No one can say when the immigration will occur, or what aid andabsorption services the Falash Mura will receive in Ethiopia or in Israel. Noris it clear who will pay the cost of immigration and absorption, which someestimates put at $400 million over four years.

“There is no timetable and nobody is contemplating a massiveairlift,” Barbara Ribakove Gordon, founder and executive director of the NorthAmerican Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), told me. “But we hope it’s anagreement that can be translated into action.”

The Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who, under pressure,converted to Christianity several generations back.

“Although the Falash Mura have always viewed themselves, andbeen viewed by their Christian neighbors as belonging ethnically to the BetaIsrael community, their parents or grandparents converted to Christianity,”wrote Joseph Feit, an expert on the group and a NACOEJ past president.

The Falash Mura, who left their villages and made their wayto Addis Ababa and Gondar, lead traditionally Jewish lives. More than 4,200children attend Jewish day schools, and thousands of adults attend dailycommunal prayer services and classes in Jewish education. Men put on tefillinand women immerse in the mikvah.

“They are passionate Zionists,” said Richard Geisberg, a longtimelocal activist on their behalf.

Controversy has dogged the community in the past. Somescholars and government officials have claimed the Falash Mura are Christianswho merely seek economic opportunity in Israel. But as long ago as 1991, RabbiOvadia Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi, said the Falash Mura should beallowed to come to Israel as authentic Jews. Since then, almost all leadingrabbis in Israel and elsewhere have agreed.

While the debate and the stalling continued, the Falash Muralanguished — and still reside — in conditions of squalor and insecurity.

In Addis Ababa, several thousand Falash Mura live near afenced-in compound where NACOEJ provides daily rations and educationalprograms. Families of four or more live in mud huts the size of amiddle-manager’s office. Most of the people are unemployed, and many are forcedto beg. Famine threatens and illness is rampant.

NACOEJ ( feeds 10,000 meals a day to 7,000children and pregnant and nursing women, and educates 4,500 children, and theJewish federation system’s overseas partner, the American Jewish JointDistribution Committee (JDC), runs health clinics. NACOEJ runs an AIDSawareness campaign, sponsored by an anonymous L.A. donor, that has helped keepthe rate of HIV infection much lower than in the general population.

Gordon credits former Interior Minister Eli Yishai and PrimeMinister Ariel Sharon with pushing the agreement through the cabinet. Now sheand other advocates are hoping Israel and the North American Jewish communityhave the foresight to supply the Falash Mura with health care, vocationaltraining and absorption skills such as language instruction while they arestill in Ethiopia.

“The costs are incredibly lower there,” she said.

The Feb. 16 resolution called on NACOEJ, JDC and the JewishAgency for Israel (JAFI) to increase humanitarian aid to the Falash Mura.Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel said he expectsa request for aid. But meeting the request will be a challenge, given thesluggish economy and urgent Jewish communal needs locally and abroad. TheFederation, aside from contributing to JDC and JAFI, has been supporting aprogram to supplement the Falash Mura diet with cheese — the only protein theyreceive, Gordon said. But now is the time to see what more we in Los Angelescan do.

Meanwhile, though the promise of Israel is closer than ever,the Falash Mura still wait.

“It’s devastating,” Gordon said. “People will die beforethey get approved to go to Israel. What kind of psychological shape will thesenew olim [immigrants] will arrive in? They are still smiling, they still havehope. They’re remarkable people, but how long can you bear it? How long can yousee your children hungry everyday?”