March 16, 2005
Exclusive: Jewish compound in Addis Ababa may reopen

By URIEL HEILMAN
BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA

A compound serving thousands of Falash Mura awaiting aliya in Addis Ababa may be reopened following a decision by Ethiopia's government to allow the Jewish aid group that runs the compound to apply for official status as a non-governmental organization, the Jerusalem Post has learned.

The compound, which is run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, was closed by Ethiopian authorities several months ago after a group of former teachers there charged NACOEJ with unfair labor practices, physical abuse and avoidance of local tax obligations.

NACOEJ officials have denied the allegations, which led to the arrests of several Jewish community officials and spurred NACOEJ's chief representative in Ethiopia, Andrew Goldman, to flee the country. Other community leaders went into hiding or left the capital city.

"We have given [NACOEJ] agreement to start their activity again," said Getachew Gonfa, head of the NGO registration office at the Ethiopian Justice Ministry.

Gonfa said NACOEJ petitioned the justice minister directly, and that the decision could result in the group's receiving official NGO registration in Ethiopia. NACOEJ has operated its compounds in Addis and Gondar-which provide Falash Mura waiting to emigrate to Israel with some food, employment and schooling-for many years without NGO status.

The government's decision comes as NACOEJ's days in Ethiopia are numbered.

Several weeks ago, NACOEJ signed an agreement to halt its activities in Ethiopia and transfer administration of its two compounds there to the Jewish Agency for Israel. That agreement is to go into effect three months after Israel increases the rate of Ethiopian aliya to 600 olim per month from the current rate of 300-an increase planned for early summer.

All told, the agreement could result in as many as 20,000 new Ethiopian olim by the end of 2007-a figure determined by an Israeli government decision two years ago-and at the same time bring an end to mass Ethiopian aliya once and for all.

Those awaiting permission to emigrate, known as Falash Mura, are Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, sometimes due to economic and social pressures. Though many of them married Christians, most of them grew up without any Jewish traditions and some of them bear tattoos of crosses on their foreheads, Israel's chief rabbinate has ruled that their Jewish ancestry makes them eligible for aliya.

Nevertheless, the remaining Falash Mura in Ethiopia are not being brought to Israel under the Law of Return, which applies to Jews, but under the Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to allow non-Jewish immigration for the purposes of family reunification.

The agreement between NACOEJ and the Jewish Agency specifies that after these last 20,000 Ethiopians are brought to Israel, any remaining Ethiopians seeking to emigrate will have to qualify for aliya by the more stringent standards of the Law of Return and on a case-by-case basis.

The NACOEJ compound in Gondar has remained open despite the problems in Addis, though officials in Gondar said Monday they were fearful that their compound could be closed next.

"We are all worried," Getu Zemene, chairman of Gondar's Jewish community, said in an interview Monday in Gondar. "We haven't started paying tax to the government. We have to have permission from Nacoej. We need some details-how to do it, how much."

Demalash Belay, chairman of Addis Ababa's Jewish community, was jailed for a month after the allegations against Nacoej surfaced.

The police interrogators "said I was a collaborator with an illegal organization," Belay said last week in an interview in Addis Ababa. "I'm trying to get people to calm down for the time being."

For the Falash Mura, nothing is more precious than eligibility for aliya. It is the only way for the vast majority of them to escape desperate poverty in their home country. Many live in squalid shantytowns near the Nacoej compounds in Addis and Gondar, hardly scraping enough money together every month to pay rent for the 3-meter-by-4-meter sheds in which they live, often five to a room.

Most of them came to Gondar and Addis seven years ago from remote villages in the Ethiopian countryside, believing they needed to be in the cities to ensure their expedited aliya. But as the aliya-verification process has dragged on, these rural farmers have grown even more destitute in cities in which they are ill-equipped to make a living.