Obstacles hit Ethiopian aliyah

But efforts by the Israeli government and humanitarian groups to close down operations in Ethiopia are complicated by reports of atrocities against those still hoping to make aliyah, disputes over the Jewish status of many seeking refuge and urgent pleas from those being left behind.

At the same time, there are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Jews in Kwara, near the Sudanese border, who were left off the original rescue list. Israeli government officials say their attention will now turn to them.

Also at issue is the fate of as many as 15,000 Falash Mura — Ethiopians who consider themselves Jewish but are not considered Jewish by the Israeli government. The Israeli government fears that many, if not most, will want to settle in Israel.

At the request of the Israeli government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee will close down its compound in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa by Wednesday.

Recent visitors to northern Ethiopian villages report that one 6-year-old Falash Mura child was burned to death when her family's home was set on fire and that hundreds have fled from their villages. But these reports have not been confirmed by other sources.

Meanwhile, the Falash Mura have appealed to Jewish activists.

"We would like to beg of you in the name of the God of Israel to continue your assistance for us," they wrote to the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. "Please don't abandon us at our time of need, at this time of suffering and grief. Please finish what you have already started."

Debate over the Jewish status of the Falash Mura underlies the increasingly complex situation in Ethiopia today.

The Israeli government and some Jewish humanitarian officials consider them Christians whose ancestors converted from Judaism generations ago. Others, however, say the Falash Mura didn't become Christians, but they do not live religious Jewish lives.

Three recent visitors to several northern villages report that Falash Mura are being targeted in "pogroms" and are being burned out of their homes by their Christian neighbors who want to expropriate their property.

In separate interviews from Addis Ababa and Israel, the travelers reported that Christians have set fire to the modest huts, or tukuls, of their Falash Mura neighbors in the middle of the night, waving guns and screaming at them to go to Israel.

Barbara Ribakove Gordon, the executive director of the NACOEJ, who visited the village of Buchara on Sunday of last week, was told that a 4-year-old girl was rescued from the flames of a burning tukul, and that in another village, a 6-year-old girl was burned to death.

Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has spent nearly $10 million aiding the Jews and Falash Mura of Ethiopia, is dubious of the reports of violence against the Falash Mura in the north.

But several sources say that as a result of the violence, some Falash Mura are fleeing, complicating the situation in Addis Ababa, where the JDC and the NACOEJ have maintained a compound to provide services for those waiting to immigrate to Israel.

Most of those in the compound were brought to Addis Ababa by Israeli emissaries while preparing for Operation Solomon. They missed the airlift either because they didn't arrive in the capital in time or because their applications weren't processed in time.

Some 65,000 Ethiopians now live in Israel. Controversy has surrounded the question of whether Israel should be responsible for those left in Ethiopia with more questionable Jewish ties.

Amid ongoing disputes over the status of those Falash Mura at the compound in Addis Ababa, an Israeli ministerial committee last year decided to allow all of those waiting to emigrate to come to Israel and then to close down the compound.

Avi Granot, Israel's former ambassador to Ethiopia and the current minister for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said the problem is that all of the 40 million Coptic Christians in Ethiopia could consider themselves direct descendants of Jews.

Israel is concerned that if "Israel assists them, that millions of Ethiopians would turn to the Jewish state for refuge from their country's grinding poverty and escalating war with neighboring Eritrea," he said.

Others dispute the view that the stream of Falash Mura into Jerusalem would be endless.

A survey of the country's remaining Falash Mura in 1992 recorded about 25,000 names, said Avshalom Elitzur of South Wing to Zion. Fewer than 15,000 remain in Ethiopia.

The notion that there would be an "endless stream" of Falash Mura into Israel," Elitzur said, "is a myth cultivated in Israel by those who are trying to frighten people" who don't like the idea of more black people there, he said.

What happens next is unclear.

The head of the Immigration Ministry's Ethiopian Desk arrived last week in Ethiopia to quietly close down the camp in Addis Ababa and transport 280 waiting immigrants there to Israel.

Meanwhile, Schneider said the JDC is "between a rock and a hard place." He said the JDC would not set up aid centers without Israel's approval because he is afraid that they will turn into "magnets" pulling Falash Mura and Jews to leave their villages without any promise of a future in Israel, and that the JDC will then be required to support them at great cost.