Last November 15, the Israeli government unanimously decided to bring to Israel approximately 9,000 Ethiopians, 70 percent of whom have first-degree relatives in Israel. Left behind because they were only paternally linked, these people returned to Judaism years ago. All will undertake a full conversion, like the more than 50,000 Ethiopians who arrived after Operation Solomon. Even ministers from the charedi Shas party voted for the resolution.
But three weeks ago, the government refused to commence aliyah, as required by the resolution, claiming no budget for 2016. Instead, it said it is willing to bring about 500 sick and/or elderly people as “humanitarian” cases. Since almost all of the 9,000 refugees endure unimaginable suffering, all should be eligible as “humanitarian” cases.
The government also stated that a new law retroactively nullifies the resolution with respect to aliyah in 2017 and 2018. Infuriated, an Ashkenazi charedi member of Knesset, Moshe Gafni, said the law must be revoked if interpreted to preclude bringing these paternally linked Jews.
In fact, the government’s argument that the law applies retroactively is nonsense; the statute itself provides effective dates that fall after the November 2015 decision.
The new law was adopted one week after the government resolution. Is it imaginable that the ministers passed a resolution, knowing it would be void in seven days? Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and then Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein were present when the aliyah resolution passed; why didn’t they speak up? And if the law is retroactive, why doesn’t the government invalidate other cabinet decisions? Should retroactivity apply solely to decisions benefitting Ethiopian Jews?
Thousands of Ethiopians demonstrated last Sunday to protest the government’s wrongful and unlawful action; they have not seen their parents, brothers, sisters and children for many years. Two Likud Knesset members, having spent years negotiating the resolution the government abrogated unilaterally, have threatened to leave the coalition, which could threaten the government’s 61-59 majority.
While reversing course, the Israeli government has recognized two diaspora communities in Ethiopia, frozen their aliyah and declined to provide the destitute community with desperately needed assistance. Israel has not even asked the Jewish Agency or the Joint Distribution Committee to provide aid.
Thus, preventing a humanitarian catastrophe falls by default on diaspora Jewry. But so far American Jewish institutions have not stepped up to the challenge. Like children, they are waiting patiently for permission from Israel.
UJC (United Jewish Communities) says it is “waiting to hear from the government of Israel as to what their direction is and we will work with the Jewish Agency as that becomes clear,” translated as no assistance until UJC receives orders from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Only last week, Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, said the same thing publicly in New York. For 25 years, the Joint has provided medical assistance in Ethiopia only to those Beta Israel Ethiopians approved by Israel. UJA-Federation of New York previously charted a proactive independent course on Ethiopian issues but its current CEO, Eric Goldstein, though caring and compassionate, is new to the issue and is consulting with others. But time is running out. What should we do?
American Jewry should consult with Israel on issues relating to diaspora Jews but not feel bound by its directions, particularly when they are generated by political, not Jewish concerns. Diaspora communities assisted one another before the State was founded. Our charitable institutions breach their fiduciary duty when they fail to be guided by the views of their American Jewish donor base.
Diaspora Jewry should determine who is a Jew in the diaspora, not Israel. If the Jewish Agency and the Joint continue to refuse to provide assistance before Israel unfreezes aliyah, UJC should provide funds to those organizations willing to assume the burden.
A 2011 peer reviewed journal stated that stunting, a growth disorder often caused by malnutrition, affected 37.2 percent of all the Beta Israel children in Gondar. And that was when the community was receiving assistance. Stunting can cause serious mental and physical effects often irreversible. Moreover, there is a good chance food prices will become increasingly unaffordable. The severe famine in Gondar province has not yet directly hit the Beta Israel area but it is likely food shortages in adjacent famine stricken areas will increase the price they pay for food.
If you agree that American Jews can make their own moral and religious judgments without relying on Israel, and that we have an independent obligation to lessen the pain of fellow diaspora Jews, let the leadership of UJC, and your local federation know — repeatedly and emphatically.
We have seen this movie too many times. Ultimately the 9,000 Beta Israel will make aliyah despite the current freeze. Israel only controls how long the community will remain trapped in an unending “Groundhog Day” of pointless misery. But how damaged the children will be when they finally arrive in the Jewish homeland is up to American Jewry, which can do a great deal to alleviate suffering by providing humanitarian assistance immediately.
Joseph Feit, a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, first traveled to Ethiopia in 1988.