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The Last Jews of Ethiopia

I’ve always had a special love for my brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. I suppose it began the day I saw a woman who had given birth en route get off the plane during Operation Solomon. This brought to mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “See I … gather them from the uttermost ends of the earth…her that travaileth with child … a great company shall return hither.”

And so, when a lovely young Ethiopian girl approached me with a handout during the Jewish Agency’s General Assembly, I took it gladly and read it with care.

The handout – prepared by a group calling itself “The South Wing to Zion”- was nothing less than shocking. Ethiopian Jews being left behind in Jewish Agency transit camps to die of disease and malnutrition and anti-Semitic attacks because of the racism of white Jewish officials who preferred white, half-Jewish Russians, to black Jews.

To say I was outraged would be an understatement. And so, I began to investigate.

My first step was a meeting with the director of The South Wing to Zion, Mr. Avraham Neguise. When I turned up at the address he gave me, there was no sign on the door. It seemed boarded up. I called Mr. Neguise, who apologized for being late, and asked me to wait. I waited, watching maruading cats eating leftovers amid a collection of old soda bottles.

He turned out to be a stocky, personable, middle-aged man wearing an English riding cap. As the door to the office creaked open, and we sat down inside, he again reiterated much of what I’d read. He handed me lists with thousands of names, allegedly of people left behind to rot in camps who were immediate relatives of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. His theory about the refusal of Israeli immigration authorities and organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee to aid these suffering Ethiopian Jews was clear: racism. The Ministry of Absorption was in the hands of Russians, who looked out for their own. The Israeli government didn’t like blacks, and so it backed them up. The JDC was an arm of the Israeli establishment. Asked about his own background, he seemed uneasy. He’d made Aliyah from Ethiopia. He was a social worker, he said.

That same evening, I called the JDC in New York to confront them with their calumny. To my surprise, rather than being defensive and hostile, JDC officials were relieved, even anxious, to discuss this subject with me. I went on to read official Jewish Agency documents, protocols of government meetings. I followed up with a long session with Ms. R., a young, religious, Israeli-born woman who works for the Organization for Ethiopian Jewry and speaks Amharit, who spent a year in Ethiopia investigating the situation first-hand. From all of these things, quite a different picture emerged. In fact, the exact opposite of Mr. Neguise’s allegations.

Some background. In 1991, the Israeli government brought 14,700 Ethiopian Jews to Israel during Operation Solomon. At that time, 1,800 more were left behind because their families had converted to Christianity. They became known as Felas Mura.

The Israeli government appointed the Tzaban Committee to decide on the eligibility of these people. In the meantime, thousands of additional people flooded the refugee camps in Addis Abba. By 1997, 5,200 people from the Felas Mura were granted Alyiah permits by the Tzaban committee on the basis of family reunification, some of them practicing Christians. They too arrived in Israel.

In July 1997 Rabbi Menachem Waldman and representatives of The South Wing to Zion built a mikve in Addis Ababa, which the Rabbi used to perform conversion ceremonies on 500 women. Subsequently, these women and their families were included in a list of 3,623 people Rabbi Waldman submitted to Natan Sharansky. Rabbi Waldman agreed to close the complex when these people, and another 551 from the villages, would be allowed into Israel. Mr. Sharansky agreed, mostly on humanitarian grounds, since it was clear many of these people were not really Jewish in any sense, and thus not eligible for immigration under the Law of Return. It was agreed that humanitarian assistance groups like NAACOEJ and the JDC would close down their operations when the last of these people were brought over.

These immigrants reached Israel in July, 1998.

All of a sudden, in August, 1998, these camps and ones in Gondar suddenly filled up again. Numbers ran into the thousands. Suddenly, NACOEJ and The South Wing to Zion, were talking about new lists with thousands of new names.

Ms.R told me that there is very bad blood between the real Ethiopian Jewish community and the Felas Mura, who are considered dangerous and traitors to the Jewish community, despite close family ties. In fact, Ms. R refused to let me use her name for this article because “Neguise’s thugs might burn my house down.” The sudden desire of Felas Mura to convert and move to Israel must be looked at carefully. Ethiopians have a gross national income of $127 a year. It is a country whose health, education and employment opportunities suffer serious problems. Mr. Neguise himself, who was a Christian pastor not too long ago according to a number of sources, has been demanding huge sums of financial aide from the JDC for the people on his “lists” as a condition to stopping his worldwide propoganda campaign which depicts the JDC as abandoning suffering Jews to disease and starvation in Ethiopia.

Ms. R also met with Rabbi Waldman in Ethiopia, confronting him with evidence of people eating pork in local restaurants, who also wore a tallis to his Sabbath services. Rabbi Waldman didn’t seem troubled by this, insisting that they were all sincere Jews, longing to be in Israel. What broke her heart most, she said, was that the aliyah of the Jews of Quara, a nothern region in Ethiopia, with whom she spent much time and whose authentic Jewishness is not questioned by anyone, is being delayed because of the present battles to bring over the Felas Mura.

I was happy to learn that some of the Jews of Quara have already joined us. Let’s hope the truth comes to light, and the rest join us soon.

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