June 9, 2005

US Jewry's $100m. for Ethiopian aliya puts ball in Israel's court

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

The association of Jewish federations in North America voted this week to raise an additional $100 million over the next five years for aliya and absorption of Ethiopian immigrants.

The money will go toward facilitating the aliya of Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia, running absorption centers in Israel and operating service programs in Israel for Ethiopian immigrants. Now the federations must go out and solicit North American Jews for the money, which was approved by a vote Sunday of the board of trustees of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group.

The success of this expensive new initiative may hinge on whether or not and how quickly the Israeli government follows through on its pledges to speed up the process of verifying the eligibility for aliya of approximately 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia and provide expensive housing grants to Ethiopian immigrants in Israeli absorption centers. So far, the government has shown little progress on either of those fronts.

"The money needs to be there, and all the rest flows," Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC, said in an interview. "I think UJC is best if it's an organizational presence that doesn't just lecture people on what to do but actually goes out to help and do the job."

"Frankly, I think we came to the conclusion on this subject that we need to hold up our share of the bargain, so to speak, and by moving forward and taking this action-which we very much plan to implement-at least we've carried out our responsibility," Rieger said. "Will the government carry out theirs? I hope and expect they will."

UJC's announcement puts the onus on the Israeli government to hold up its end of an informal accord reached in 2003 in which Israel agreed to bring additional Falash Mura and UJC pledged to help pay for it.

Several months ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that Israel would accelerate the rate of Ethiopian aliya to 600 olim per month from 300, bringing a maximum of 20,000 more Falash Mura to Israel under the Law of Entry.

Crucial to the success of the plan is a related agreement worked out last January between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the main US Jewish aid and advocacy group operating in Ethiopia, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ). Under that agreement, NACOEJ is to leave Ethiopia once the 600-per-month aliya rate has been reached for three consecutive months and halt all its advocacy efforts for Falash Mura aliya once up to 20,000 Falash Mura are brought to Israel. The Jewish Agency would assume responsibility for the education and welfare of the population in Ethiopia once NACOEJ leaves.

The agreement is important because it effectively eliminates from the scene the advocacy group that has kept alive the issue of Ethiopian aliya, thereby enabling Israel to close the expensive chapter on mass Ethiopian aliya. Each Ethiopian oleh costs the government approximately $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to government estimates.

But the government has yet to take the steps necessary to process the olim at the expedited rate, and a special investigation by The Jerusalem Post in March found signs that there are far more than 20,000 Falash Mura left in Ethiopia. Both the delay and the Post's discovery potentially complicate Israel's plan for ending mass Ethiopian aliya.

The Falash Mura, who call themselves Beta Israel, are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Many have since resumed Jewish practices while awaiting aliya in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar, where NACOEJ runs aid compounds that provide schooling, some employment, some food and adult Jewish education.

The Ethiopians who remained Jewish-whose descendents left Ethiopia in Operations Moses and Solomon-also call themselves Beta Israel and are sometimes referred to as Falasha. They are divided over whether or not the Israeli government should bring the remaining Falash Mura.

The longer Israel waits to prepare for the expedited aliya of the Falash Mura, the more it likely will cost to absorb them once they begin coming to Israel in significantly larger numbers.

"We may have more expenses if we can't get them out quickly," Mike Rosenberg, director general of the Jewish Agency's Department of Immigration and Absorption, said at Sunday's UJC board meeting. "We don't have enough beds currently" in Israeli absorption centers to deal with the Ethiopian olim, he said.

"Let's put the real facts on the table," said Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, a federation board member from Baltimore and one of several people to challenge the details of Rieger's plan at the UJC meeting. The federations need to secure a financial commitment from the Israeli government before soliciting North American Jewry for funding for Ethiopian aliya and absorption, she said.

Her primary concern, Rubsenstein later explained in an interview, is whether Israel will come up with the money to provide housing grants to Ethiopian immigrants ready to move out of the absorption centers. That would free up beds in the centers for incoming immigrants, saving the government the added cost of building new absorption centers to house new immigrants.

"I'm very concerned whether we have a real plan," Rubenstein told Rieger at the meeting.

Rosenberg suggested that the Israeli government, for its part, was waiting for UJC to put up some money before the government took any costly steps of its own.

As it stands now, UJC's plan is to raise $23 million over three years for aliya preparation in Ethiopia, including transportation, education and welfare costs, $40 million over five years for running absorption centers in Israel and possibly constructing new ones, and $37 million over three years for programs for the Ethiopian population in Israel. Whether or not North America's 155 Jewish federations will succeed in raising the sum from their constituents remains to be seen. The money would be in addition to the $15 million or so per year in federation money that UJC already spends on programs for Ethiopians in Israel.

The UJC board also voted at its meeting to approve $60 million in new funding for projects in the former Soviet Union.

UJC's new Ethiopia initiative comes at a time of some ferment in Ethiopia, which NACOEJ warns could endanger the Falash Mura. On Monday, police clashed with student demonstrators in public protests over what opposition political parties are calling widespread fraud in May 15 legislative elections. One person was killed in the violence, The Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, United Nations officials are warning that a drought in much of the country may cause a famine that could lead to malnutrition or death for millions of people. On Tuesday, the United States announced it would send $414 million in additional aid to the Horn of Africa-primarily to Ethiopia and Eritrea-to try to avert a famine there.

Jewish aid officials with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates medical clinics for the Falash Mura in Ethiopia, say the mostly urban Falash Mura population is not at risk of starvation. But a famine elsewhere in the country could drive up prices for basic foodstuffs, straining the meager financial resources of the impecunious Falash Mura, who live in urban shantytowns and suffer from high rates of unemployment.

In a statement NACOEJ issued on May 18, executive director Barbara Ribakove Gordon quoted an Ethiopian-Israeli community leader as saying that the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa-where NACOEJ's compound has been closed for several months following a dispute with disgruntled community members and a police investigation-are dying of starvation.

"People are starving to death. Thousands of people are suffering from hunger. Children are wandering on the streets," said Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, an Israeli organization funded by NACOEJ. Neguise originally made the remark to the New York Jewish Week.

Rock Hodes, the JDC's chief physician in Ethiopia, said there has been an increase in "food insecurity" among the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa since NACOEJ's aid compound there was shut down, but that there has not been any increase in death or illness rates.

"We are monitoring the situation and enrolling anyone appropriate in our feeding programs," Hodes said.