Leaders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee signaled they may soon find a way to aid some 15,000 destitute Ethiopians who want to go to Israel after reportedly being attacked in their villages due to their Jewish connections.
The Joint, which aided several earlier waves of Ethiopian Jews before they came to Israel, does not want to open new JDC aid centers in Ethiopia, said Amir Shaviv, the group’s director of communications, for fear of drawing yet more would-be emigrants. “But one can make sure arrangements are made locally for them to receive medical help in Ethiopian hospitals and for their bills to be paid,” he said. “Food and blankets can be distributed through their own local committees.”
Shaviv stressed this was just one of several options on ways to aid the Ethiopians that had been discussed. A decision to facilitate such aid had not yet been made, he stressed. Any decision awaits a JDC board meeting to take place in two weeks.
Nevertheless, Shaviv’s remarks represent a significant shift from the Joint’s earlier stand rejecting appeals to aid the Ethiopians, whose Jewish status has been hotly debated.
Interviewed last Friday, Shaviv also shifted clearly away from the Joint’s earlier dismissal of reports that these Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, had been violently attacked by other Ethiopians for their family relationships with Ethiopian Jews.
“We have no reason to doubt — or believe — [these reports],” said Shaviv. Rather than focus on this debate, “We are looking around to see who can do what,” he added.
Last June, Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the Joint, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “There is not hard evidence to suggest that there either is, or will be an outbreak of pogroms against either Jews or Falash Mura.”
Several recent visitors to Ethiopia report that the Falash Mura have been targeted in “pogroms” and are being burned out of their homes by their Christian neighbors who want to expropriate their property. Several thousand have become internal refugees within Ethiopia, fleeing to Addis Ababa and the area around the provincial capital of Gondar City, in the country’s remote north.
The Joint’s more open attitude comes on the heels of a visit to the United States by Abraham Neguise, an Israel-based Ethiopian Jewish advocate for the Falash Mura. Neguise met with numerous Jewish leaders in New York and Washington earlier this month, including JDC officials. In these meetings, Neguise urged the leaders to get food, blankets and other aid to some 15,000 Falash Mura. Neguise showed some of them a videotape containing testimony from the Falash Mura in which they describe killings, beatings, arson attacks on their homes and robberies against them by other Ethiopians angered by their ties to kinsmen who have emigrated to Israel.
Relatives of Ethiopian Jews who have emigrated to Israel, the Falash Mura’s own Jewish status — and consequently the obligations of Israel and the Jewish world toward them — has been the subject of intense debate and controversy. Many have converted to Christianity, in large part, say their advocates, under the duress of discriminatory policies against Jews that long existed in Ethiopia. Others say the Falash Mura did not actually convert to Christianity but do not live religious Jewish lives.
Earlier this year, after years of wrangling, Israel brought in the last of a group of 4,000 Falash Mura who had been waiting for years in compounds where they were aided by the Joint and North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.
But with the outbreak of reports that remaining Falash Mura have been attacked, the North American Conference and other advocates have pressed Israel to take in a list of some 15,000 more. Almost all claim first-degree relatives already in Israel.
So far, Israel has refused to accept those on the list for mass emigration, though it has said it will consider applicants on a case-by-case basis under the Law of Return. That law confers immigration rights on anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. Despite protests from Falash Mura who say they need aid now, Israel has also ordered the compound where the earlier groups were receiving such aid to be closed.
Among other reasons, Israel has cited its fear that in Ethiopia, a country with many Jewish connections, there are a virtually unending number of residents who could claim some familial connection to the Jewish people.
Neguise, who says that many of the 15,000 on his list are now returning to Judaism, said he was happy to hear Jewish officials would meet soon to try to come up with a way to address his concerns.
“I will return,” he said. “And I hope and expect then to hear what result was reached. I’m now expecting practical results.”
Neguise predicted that ultimately advocacy by him and others would lead Israel to admit the current 15,000, as it did the earlier group of Falash Mura.