Dec. 29, 2004
American Jewish aid group in Ethiopia accused of denying food to Falash Mura

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

A fight has broken out in Ethiopia's Falash Mura community over the activities of an American Jewish aid group some say runs a mafia-like operation at its compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar-where some 15,000 to 17,000 Falash Mura await permission to immigrate to Israel.

Those making the accusations against the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (Nacoej) say the group has withheld food for months at its compound in Addis Ababa, runs an embroidery operation in slave-labor-like conditions, threatens community members who speak out against the abuses and employs a representative who beats people up.

Nacoej, which spends about $1.5 million per year to provide food and Jewish education to the Falash Mura in Ethiopia, denies all the charges. Officials say the accusations stem from a labor dispute between Nacoej and some disgruntled schoolteachers recently fired by Nacoej and deemed ineligible for emigration by Israeli officials.

"It's a complex business that is horrifying," said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, Nacoej's executive director.

Gordon said rabble-rousers in Ethiopia forced Nacoej to close its school in Addis Ababa for three weeks, and during that time Nacoej was unable to run its food-distribution program because it operates out of the school. She dismissed charges that Nacoej has not been supplying community members with food for five months.

As for the other allegations of abuse and malfeasance, Gordon said, "I think it's absolute nonsense."

Nacoej officials fear the charges could result in their ouster from the country. If that happens, they say, a humanitarian crisis could ensue that could result in thousands of Falash Mura falling risk to starvation.

The conflict has escalated to the point where some community members have received death threats, others have fled the country and the Ethiopian police have been called in to quell rioting at the compound.

Nacoej is one of two Jewish aid groups operating in Ethiopia. The other is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides the Falash Mura-also known as the Beta Israel community-with medical care. The Jewish Agency for Israel also has representatives in Ethiopia, who process for aliya Ethiopians whom Israeli officials have deemed eligible for immigration.

The Falash Mura-Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, often under social pressure, but who have resumed practicing Judaism and whose Jewishness is accepted by Israel's chief rabbinate-have been immigrating to Israel at a rate of a single planeload of about 300 people per month.

Nacoej "has been abusing people for the last 13 years," said Yoseph Enyew, an Ethiopian Jew who emigrated to Canada in 1984 but returned to Addis Ababa about four years ago. "Whenever people complain of abuses or of misadministration, they stop helping them."

The one thing both sides seem to agree upon is that many community members are angry and, to some extent, fearful.

Enyew and some others living or working in Ethiopia who were interviewed by the Jerusalem Post said community members are afraid to speak out for fear that Nacoej will retaliate by making sure they don't qualify for emigration to Israel-the universal hope among the Falash Mura.

The charges against Nacoej were aired publicly in a special program on Ethiopian TV two weeks ago. Nacoej officials said their viewpoint was neither sought out nor represented in the broadcast. They also said they have no sway over who is eligible for emigration to Israel, and that the baseless charges have resulted in death threats against teachers currently employed at the Addis Ababa school. For the time being, a court restraining order has kept the disgruntled teachers at bay, they said.

None of the teachers involved in the dispute could be reached for comment. The school employs both non-Jewish, general-studies teachers as well as Falash Mura and Jews who teach Judaic studies.

Mengnesh Getnet, one of the Ethiopians alleging malfeasance by Nacoej, sent a memo on Dec. 5 to several high-level Ethiopian government officials charging that Nacoej is embezzling funds, does not pay income taxes for its embroidery revenue and has forced community members to sign documents testifying to Nacoej's faithfulness.

"We are completely dependent on NACOEJ," Getnet said in an interview. "We don't have options."

Officials at Nacoej said they do not employ the embroiderers-who make ethnically themed challah and pillow covers-and therefore are not responsible for determining wages or taxes; the organization simply buys the finished product from the embroiderers as part of a program to help the Falash Mura earn a living. The embroiderers work at a Nacoej facility at the Addis Ababa compound, which includes a school and several other buildings but has no housing.

Nacoej officials also rejected Enyew's charge of poor conditions at the facility, which Enyew said has only two toilets for 800 people. Gordon said nobody has ever complained about the paucity of toilets and many of the workers prefer not to use the toilets at all.

Perhaps the most oft-cited charge by Nacoej's detractors-including Enyew-is that the group's project representative in Ethiopia, Andrew Goldman, has beat people up. Goldman denied those accusations.

"It's all fiction," Goldman said. "Among the NGO [non-governmental organization] community, the number of false allegations that you hear of are just something that comes with the job."

Goldman said he believes the teachers are making baseless accusations because, as community outsiders, they have been rejected for immigration to Israel and "feel that if they lost their chance they want to destroy it for everybody else."

Nacoej officials said the conflict with the schoolteachers stems both from a wage dispute and because Nacoej was forced to fire many teachers whom the Ethiopian Ministry of Education determined lack the necessary qualifications to be instructors. Those teachers have instigated riots and they or their sympathizers have issued death threats, Gordon said.

Nacoej provided the Jerusalem Post with a copy of a document dated Dec. 20 and bearing a stamp of the Beta Israel community affirming that the troublemakers do not represent Beta Israel and are "enemies of the community," and that the allegations against Nacoej are false.

Israeli Embassy officials could not be reached for comment. A JDC spokesman said the organization is aware of the charges but has been unable to determine conclusively whether or not they're true.

"Nacoej does not share information in the field with the JDC," said Amir Shaviv, a JDC spokesman in New York. "Our staff is not welcome in the compound."

Enyew said international Jewish organizations need to act now to prevent a dark chapter in the history of Ethiopian Jewry from being written.

"What is taking place is a disgrace and a shame. The Jewish people will be embarrassed for this," Enyew said. "Everyone is conspiring in some sense at this point with their silence."