July 7, 2005

JDC: Emergency funds to Falash Mura

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is distributing some $40,000 in emergency cash grants to relieve "food insecurity" among the Falash Mura awaiting aliya in Addis Ababa.

The move, announced Tuesday in an email to North American Jewish federations, is intended to fill the gap left by the closure of the aid compound run there by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ). That compound, which provided some employment, food and schooling to the 4,000-person Falash Mura community in Addis Ababa, has been closed since last fall following a dispute between NACOEJ and disgruntled community members that resulted in a Justice Ministry order barring NACOEJ from operating in the city.

"Our staff reports that food insecurity has become an increasing concern for the approximately 4,000 Felas Mora clientele in Addis Abba," JDC executive vice president Steve Schwager wrote in his email message to Jewish federation executives, who voted last month to raise an additional $100 million from North American Jews for Ethiopian aliya and absorption. "Given the new circumstances on the ground in Addis Abba, JDC has determined that it is prudent to provide a one time cash distribution which will help carry the clients in Addis Ababa for the next several months."

In an interview, Schwager added that the cash handout, amounting to some $10 to $12 per person, also is aimed at sending the community there the message that "the Jews of the world care."

The cash distribution was to start Wednesday at one or two locations in Addis Ababa, where JDC medical staff also would screen the population for unreported medical problems.

The move marks a change for the JDC, whose aid programs in Ethiopia had been limited until now to medical services and a feeding program for young children. Representatives of NACOEJ, which is both an aid and advocacy group, frequently claim that community members are starving to death in Ethiopia. But JDC officials have insisted that there has been no increase in death rates, illness rates or malnutrition in the months since NACOEJ's compound in Addis Ababa was shut down, halting a food distribution program and putting hundreds of Falash Mura embroiderers out of work.

Nevertheless, JDC's chief physician in Ethiopia, Rick Hodes, said last month that an increase in "food insecurity" among the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa had followed the closure of NACOEJ's compound in that city. "We are monitoring the situation and enrolling anyone appropriate in our feeding programs," Hodes said last month.

JDC officials said the decision to issue cash grants to each Addis Ababa family came as a result of that monitoring, and on the heels of a special request from Ethiopia's Justice Ministry, which sent a letter last month to JDC asking it to help the Falash Mura left in need by NACOEJ's absence in Addis Ababa.

The author of that letter, Getachew Gonfa, head of the ministry's NGO Registration Office, told the Jerusalem Post two months ago that his office had decided to reject NACOEJ's petition for NGO status in the country, and he barred the group from operating in Addis.

At the time, NACOEJ officials denied that such a decision had been made, telling the New York Jewish Week that NACOEJ simply was waiting for an official response from the government. But this week NACOEJ's director of operations, Orlee Guttman, acknowledged that her group's NGO application had been denied.

"The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry forwarded our NGO application to the Justice Ministry with the recommendation that our application be turned down," Guttman said. "We were informed that their negative reaction was because we did not do enough nonsectarian activities."

Though the group has since submitted a list of its nonsectarian activities to the government, "the application remains denied," Guttman said.

NACOEJ's compound in Gondar, which serves some 11,000 people, remains operational.

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, but their emigration has stalled over questions about who will pay for their immigration and absorption in Israel, whether or not they really are Jews, and how many of them remain in Ethiopia. Aid officials say there are no more than 20,000 Falash Mura left in Ethiopia, but a special Jerusalem Post investigation in March found indications of tens of thousands more Beta Israel in the Ethiopian hinterlands.

JDC's cash distribution is intended as a stopgap measure while the Jewish Agency for Israel and the JDC prepare to permanently take over NACOEJ's aid compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, under the terms of an agreement reached in January that also mandate NACOEJ's permanent departure from Ethiopia and the end of its advocacy efforts for Ethiopian aliya.

That agreement is supposed to go into effect once the Israeli government follows through on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to accelerate the rate of Ethiopian aliya to 600 olim per month from the current rate of 300-an increase originally expected for early summer.

So far, however, the Israeli government has not taken the steps necessary to implement that decision, aid officials say.

Interior Ministry officials say they are doing all they can to implement Sharon's decision and, with it, bring an end to mass Ethiopian aliya. Next month, Ophir Pines-Paz is scheduled to travel to Ethiopia on a long-delayed trip to assess the situation on the ground and discuss with officials there coordination of the emigration operation, which is expected to last two and a half years. He will be bringing with him the head of the Population Registry, Sasi Katzir, officials said.

The holdup, said a ministry spokesman, lies with the Ethiopian government, which must grant the appropriate work documents to Israeli diplomats who will be stationed in Ethiopia.

"We're doing all that needs to be done," said Gilad Heimann, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "Until now, we have not had a partner in Ethiopia. The Foreign Ministry has not succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Ethiopian government about our hospitality in Ethiopia."

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry officials did not return calls seeking comment.