Two weeks before an Israeli government program to double the immigration rate of Falash Mura from Ethiopia is set to begin, a compound operated by a New York-based humanitarian organization in Addis Ababa remains closed following threats against leaders of the Falash Mura community earlier this year.
But a similar compound run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in the northern city of Gondar is still operating, despite a report last week that Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry had denied Nacoej status to work there as a nongovernmental organization, a Nacoej spokesman said.
In addition, The Jewish Agency’s plan to take over both Nacoej facilities on June 1 as part of move announced this year to increase the monthly Falash Mura aliyah rate from 300 to 600 will likely be postponed, pending the Israeli Finance Ministry’s submission of a budget to fund the massive relocation effort. The fenced-in compounds provide food, schooling, employment and other social services.
The Israeli interministerial committee on the Falash Mura, headed by Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, has yet to approve plans for the increased aliyah.
"I am very much worried that the government may not start implementing its decision" to increase the numbers of Falash Mura coming to Israel, said an Ethiopian Jew in Israel who is close to the aliyah process. "They are dragging their feet. Bibi [Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] says he does not have the budget for the Falash Mura."
Estimates of the cost to bring the remaining 15,000 Falash Mura to Israel by 2007 range as high as $2 billion.
Until the Finance Ministry approves a budget for the accelerated immigration, The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that coordinates aliyah activities, will not be able to assume responsibility for the Nacoej compounds, the Ethiopian Jew said.
"The Jewish Agency is ready to take responsibility tomorrow," the Ethiopian said. "The program is ready."
While the compound in Gondar is still serving an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 members of the largely indigent Falash Mura community, the Nacoej facility in Addis Ababa has not reopened since it was closed in late January because of threats against Falash Mura leaders, according to Orlee Guttman, Nacoej director of operations.The compound had reopened for a short time in January after being shut down in December for three weeks due to the threats as well as an internecine dispute: some Ethiopians were bitter for being fired from teaching positions at the compound and deemed to be lacking certification to teach by the Ethiopian Ministry of Education.
Some former Nacoej workers in the Addis Ababa compound had complained of being mistreated by Nacoej staff and of sweatshop-like conditions, and made threats against the staff and the elected Jewish leaders of the community, which led Nacoej to close the compound.
However, Guttman denied a report in The Jerusalem Post last week that Ethiopia was barring Nacoej from operating in the African country and "decided to deny NGO status" to the organization. Nacoej has conducted activities in Ethiopia for two decades without official NGO designation but with the knowledge of the government.
The Post quoted Getachew Gonfa, head of the NGO Registration Office in Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry, as saying, "The [Nacoej] application is denied and they have been contacted about this.
"On the contrary, said Guttman, "We have a document testifying that on April 13, 2005, Gonfa himself attended the community meeting at the Addis compound and personally informed the community that Nacoej had received temporary permission to continue its operation by the Ministry of Justice until it receives a certificate of registration."
Avraham Neguise, the Ethiopian-born founder of the South Wing to Zion advocacy group in Jerusalem, said he has a copy of a March 21 letter from Gonfa to the Dashen Bank in Addis Ababa, where Nacoej has maintained an account, stating that "Nacoej can continue" as a bank client while the organization’s NGO status is under review.
"In a practical way, the organization is functioning," Neguise said. "Nacoej is working in Gondar in a very intensive way. That has not changed."
Guttman said the Ethiopian government asked Nacoej to apply for NGO status in order to continue its humanitarian aid. Nacoej took that step through the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, including the submission of a list of "nonsectarian activities" required by the government, she said.
While Nacoej apparently has received temporary permission to operate in Ethiopia, it is awaiting an official response.
Participants in a conference call last week among representatives of The Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee "were left with the impression that Nacoej’s petition for NGO status was being approved," The Jerusalem Post reported.
"Once we have NGO status, it should be easier for the police to protect the compound," Guttman said.
Reports that Nacoej is being forced out of Ethiopia are "absolutely not true," said Shlomo Molla, The Jewish Agency’s senior consultant for Ethiopian immigrants. "Nacoej has not been asked to stop or leave."
The Nacoej compound in Addis Ababa had served 3,000 to 4,000 Falash Mura who had moved south to await immigration.
Without the daily meals at the compound, many members of the community "are in a very critical condition," Neguise said. "People are starving to death. Thousands of people are suffering from hunger. Children are wandering on the street."
Neguise said Nacoej’s status in Ethiopia will have no effect on the aliyah of Falash Mura.
"Bringing them to Israel is the government’s decision," he said. "It is not related to Nacoej."
The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted a century ago to Christianity, Ethiopia’s dominant religion. Ineligible for the massive airlift rescue missions of 1984 and 1991, they have attempted to return to the Jewish fold in recent decades. Nearly all have applied to immigrate to Israel.
Falash Mura and other Ethiopian Jews in Israel have lobbied to complete the Falash Mura aliyah.
South Wing to Zion will hold a major demonstration in front of Prime Minister Ariel’s Sharon’s office in Jerusalem if the budget for Falash Mura aliyah is not approved in the coming weeks, Neguise said.
"The community is worried," he said. "We cannot keep quiet while our people are starving."