May 13, 2005

Exclusive: Ethiopian gov't kicks out key US Jewish aid group

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

In a move likely to complicate further the Ethiopian aliya effort, Ethiopia's government has decided to bar the key US Jewish aid group serving the Falash Mura population in Ethiopia from operating in the country, the Jerusalem Post has learned.

An official at Ethiopia's Justice Ministry confirmed that the government has decided to deny NGO status to the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which operates aid compounds in the cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar that provide schooling, some employment and some food for about 15,000 Ethiopians awaiting aliya there. The smaller of the two compounds, in Addis Ababa, has been closed since last fall following a dispute between NACOEJ and some of its local employees that prompted government investigators to temporarily jail some community members and closely scrutinize the group's operations.

Now, the government has ordered the community in Addis Ababa not to allow any NACOEJ programs to operate there.

"NACOEJ is not in action now in Addis," an Ethiopian government official said.

This latest development raises questions not only about the welfare of the Falash Mura population that is dependent on NACOEJ's aid programs, but also about the terms of a deal reached in January under which the Jewish Agency would take control of the aid compounds in exchange for NACOEJ's agreement to leave Ethiopia permanently and end its advocacy for mass Ethiopian aliya.

That agreement is supposed to take effect three months after Israel begins doubling the current rate of Ethiopian aliya to 600 persons per month-a move expected sometime this summer.

NACOEJ refused to respond to any questions for this story about the group's operations in Ethiopia, and NACOEJ officials have not told Israeli and American aid officials involved in managing the Ethiopian aliya that its petition for NGO status was denied by the Ethiopian government. Instead, participants in a conference call earlier this week between the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, which has pledged to help bankroll the Ethiopian aliya, were left with the impression that NACOEJ's petition for NGO status was being approved, sources told the Post.

Getu Zemene, a Falash Mura community leader in Gondar, also said NACOEJ told him as recently as two or three weeks ago that it had been approved for NGO status. The head of the NGO Registration Office in Ethiopia's Justice Ministry, Getachew Gonfa, said that simply was not true.

"The application is denied and they have been communicated about this," Gonfa said of NACOEJ in a telephone interview from Ethiopia. "I don't know what will be the next step from their side."

NACOEJ operated for many years in the country without legal registration, prompting questions this winter about financial accountability, and the government has said NACOEJ owed it years' worth of tax payments.

The government's denial of NACOEJ's petition comes at a precarious time in Ethiopia, when a drought in most of the country has prompted international aid organizations to warn of a famine that could leave 3.8 million Ethiopians, some 700,000 more than previously estimated, in urgent need of food assistance to prevent starvation and possible death.

Despite the direness of the situation, however, the Falash Mura population awaiting aliya in Ethiopia is not in any danger, according to the JDC, which provides medical care to the Falash Mura in Ethiopia.

"Famine, rain, no rain-it's irrelevant to our audience in Gondar and Addis," said Amir Shaviv, JDC's assistant executive vice president. A possible famine has "absolutely no effect on our population," he said. "They are not farmers. It's irrelevant."

JDC also said it has not seen any rise in malnutrition or other health problems among the Falash Mura population in Addis during the last few months, while NACOEJ's compound there has been closed. Many Falash Mura get help making ends meet from relatives in Israel.

It is not clear whether the government's decision will have any immediate effect on NACOEJ's aid compound in Gondar, where Zemene said things have been running as usual.

Because the Jewish Agency is slated to take over NACOEJ's compounds, it is possible that this latest development will not have a significant impact on the situation in Ethiopia beyond imperiling NACOEJ's future in the country. The Jewish Agency, as a quasi-governmental agency, is in the process of securing official status to operate in Ethiopia as part of Israel's diplomatic corps there.

The Jewish Agency, the JDC and US Jewish federations are also in talks about how they will pay for the planned aliya of some 20,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia-the number the Israeli government has said it will accept. The cost of that operation, at a rate of 600 a month beginning this summer and ending in 2007, is expected to cost about $23 million, not including absorption costs once the olim reach Israel. The Israeli government estimates absorption costs at $100,000 per person over the course of each oleh's lifetime.

The rate of current Ethiopian aliya is about 300 per month.

"We have major financial support in there," said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. "We also are among the advocates of that group that was recognized as people eligible for aliya. We thought it was incumbent on the Jewish people, particularly given the prime minister's urgent call for aliya, to support that effort, which we have done in many ways."

The bulk of the financial support from the Americans is expected to come from UJC.

"UJC recognizes the imperative of this issue, and we are working on and examining the issue with the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee directly," said Glenn Rosenkrantz, a UJC spokesman.