The fenced-in compound operated in Addis Ababa by a New York-based humanitarian organization to feed and educate Falash Mura has returned to its normal schedule after being closed for three weeks recently because of death threats against some of the Falash Mura leaders, according to officials of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.
NACOEJ, which has conducted activities in Ethiopia for two decades, had shut the compound in the wake of accusations of abuse that appeared in the Israeli press and on Ethiopian television.
The claims had prompted a visit earlier this month by an official of the Ministry of Justice, accompanied by armed guards, to investigate conditions in the compound.
“The programs are running,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, NACOEJ executive director. “Except that here in America we have to keep dealing with this stuff.”
The NACOEJ facilities in the Ethiopian capital and in the northern city of Gondar provide services for the estimated 15,000 Falash Mura who remain in Ethiopia, Gordon said.
Falash Mura are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity a century ago but have attempted in recent decades to return to the Jewish fold; nearly all have applied to immigrate to Israel.
Successive Israeli governments have pledged to speed up the immigration process, but the number making aliyah each month remains at a few hundred.
The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that the compound’s embroidery program is run like a sweatshop, that dissident recipients of NACOEJ aid had been denied food, and that Andrew Goldman, NACOEJ’s Ethiopian representative, had beaten and intimidated Falash Mura.
“Absolute nonsense,” Gordon said.
She said the Justice ministry official who came to the compound following complaints about conditions there left “saying that he understood that the reports were baseless.”
“It’s all fiction,” Goldman told The Jerusalem Post. “Among the NGO [nongovernmental organization] community, the number of false allegations you hear of are just something that comes with the job.”
“Are conditions ideal in Ethiopia?” NACOEJ’s chief operating officer, Ricki Lieberman, asked in a letter she sent to The Jerusalem Post. “Far from it. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world and the Jews have traditionally been among the poorest of the poor.”
While one observer close to the Ethiopian Jewish community said the abuse reports have surfaced frequently during the past several years, other experts denied the claims, calling them part of an internecine fight between NACOEJ administrators in Addis Ababa and Ethiopians bitter for being fired from teaching positions at the compound or for being ruled ineligible to settle in Israel.
The same accusations were made and discredited in 2000 and 2002, said Lieberman, who added that employment decisions at the NACOEJ compound are made by a committee of Falash Mura leaders subject to guidelines of the Ministry of Education.
“It’s a small group of people who are vindictive, who found out they are not going to Israel and turned their rage against NACOEJ,” Lieberman said. “A number of teachers were fired several months ago and they threatened violence. These guys are just rabble-rousing.”
NACOEJ closed the compound for three weeks “based on the safety of the children,” until increased security by local police was arranged, she said. “We are very disappointed that the Israeli Embassy, which is close by, has never taken responsibility for the security of this very vulnerable area.”
“We couldn’t feed the children” during that three-week period, Lieberman said.
Goldman, who has worked 14 years in Ethiopia, is temporarily in the United States recovering from emergency surgery, Gordon said. He will return to Addis Ababa “as soon the doctor gives him permission.”
Fassil Legassa, an Ethiopian-born television journalist who travels frequently between Israel and Ethiopia, said his Ethiopian contacts offer mixed reports about the accuracy of the accusations.
“Some say it’s true, some say it’s false,” Legassa said.
As to the accusations against Goldman, Michael Cornaldi, a Jerusalem attorney and Falash Mura activist, said “I have heard no complaints” from Falash Mura who arrived recently in Israel. “Generally I hear good things.”
“I don’t hear any bad things about Andy,” said Shlomo Molla, the Jewish Agency’s senior consultant for Ethiopian immigrants. Molla, a native of Ethiopia, is in touch frequently with Falash Mura both in Israel and in their homeland.
“I don’t have any anti-Andy information and any anti-NACOEJ information” from the Falash Mura, Molla said. He added that “there is some conflict between [some] members of the community [in Addis Ababa] and the directors of NACOEJ,” alluding to the fired teachers.
Avraham Neguise, the Ethiopian-born founder of the South Wing to Zion advocacy group in Jerusalem, said the Ethiopians who did not receive immigration permission — eligibility decisions are made not by NACOEJ but by the Ministry of the Interior — “want to destroy the assistance the community is getting.”
Most Falash Mura “are very grateful [to NACOEJ] for the help and the assistance, the extraordinary humanitarian assistance,” Neguise said. “The community suffered for three weeks … because of these evil people” while the feeding program did not operate.
“Children were fainting on the street because this feeding program is their only means of feeding,” he said.
Open letters issued by leaders of the Falash Mura community in Addis Ababa criticized the “agitation” and “false information” against NACOEJ.
“The various allegations … are far from the truth,” one of the letters said. “Mr. Andrew Goldman is a person who has made and is still making a significant contribution to us.”
A few people close to the Falash Mura community who asked that their names not be used said the charges against NACOEJ were encouraged by representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The JDC, which supports a medical clinic in Addis Ababa and a compound in Gondar, has had an adversarial relationship at times with NACOEJ.
But JDC assistant executive vice president Amir Shaviv dismissed the charges of JDC involvement in the claims against NACOEJ as “sheer nonsense.”
“JDC is not involved in this,” Shaviv said. “JDC focuses only on the medical and humanitarian services for the Falash Mura population in Addis Ababa and Gondar.”