U.S. Jews guilty of inaction in Ethiopian Jewish deaths

A 6-year-old Jewish girl was recently burned alive in her Ethiopian village by a band of anti-Semitic men who were seeking to expel the remaining Jews and expropriate their land. Dozens of Jewish homes have been torched in many villages. But the local police and peasant associations refuse to intervene, telling the Jews they should leave and join their families in Israel.

Because of the anti-Semitic violence, the nearby war on the Eritrean border and rapidly deteriorating health conditions, thousands of Jews have been streaming into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Yet the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Absorption are announcing this week the successful completion of emigration efforts from Ethiopia.

In a deal worked out last year between the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jews and the Israeli government, the Jewish compound in the Ethiopian capital that has serviced 4,000 Jews will be closed once all the Jews already there have been brought to Israel. The last of the compound Jews will be leaving shortly and the JDC has agreed, at the request of the Israeli government, to close down its Ethiopian operations. The NACOEJ, however, is reconsidering its position in light of the changing conditions.

The Israeli government would like to see the Jewish world celebrate the end of the Ethiopian aliyah (immigration to Israel). But it is a time to mourn. The American Jewish community is already implicated by its inaction in the deaths of hundreds of fellow Jews. Soon, without intervention, many more will die.

What should be done?

*First, open the compound up to the 6,500 Jews who have recently streamed into Addis Ababa. The previous agreement to close the compound did not anticipate a war up north, pogroms against Ethiopian Jewish families, or a severe downturn in the health of the Jewish communities of Gondar. These Jews are refugees without land, money, food or medicine. Most have direct relatives in Israel and are eligible to come on aliyah under the Law of Return; all are eligible under Israel's Law of Entry.

The compound is not registered to any of the American or Israeli organizations. It is property rented by the Beta Yisrael community of Addis Ababa in order to have a safe area to teach the children, feed their families, work, seek medical help and prepare for their aliyah. The audacity of the Israelis to force the compound to close — and to cajole the JDC to accept this misguided and immoral policy — is indicative of the paternalistic attitude that has characterized much of Israeli policy since the miraculous airlift six years ago.

The various organizations who last year agreed to close the compound were irresponsible. Last year, the former Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Avi Granot, recommended that the JDC set up medical and other facilities in the north. The JDC didn't. Now, that Ethiopian Jews are victims of violence and fleeing an imminent war, efforts to close the compound must be accompanied by significant relief, safe-haven and aliyah processing in areas where Jews live. Otherwise, the landless and destitute Jews will continue to flee to Addis Ababa.

*Second, immediately bring home the 2,500 to 3,000 Kwara Jews who have been languishing since 1992. Granot says that the vast majority of Kwara Jews, who are from a mountainous region in northern Ethiopia, are eligible for aliyah. Their Jewishness is not under dispute. But many have needlessly died waiting because of Israeli bureaucrats who have undermined their aliyah eligibility. Since there is little to no organizational accountability in Jewish life — and the JDC has thus been able to keep its board of directors in the dark about the implications of its Israeli-controlled policy — Jews have been dying and will continue to die.

*Third, the planes that are used to pick up the Kwara Jews should be filled in Israel with medical supplies and personnel to take care of the sick in Addis Ababa and especially up north. This is far more likely to happen if the JDC immediately shames the Israelis with its own airlift of supplies and doctors.

The government of Ethiopia places no restrictions on the emigration of its citizens, including Jews. In fact, for the past seven months, more than 500 have been leaving the compound in Addis Ababa each month on commercial flights.

American Jews must face up to the horrible fact that there are two reasons why Jews still remain, are being killed and are dying of curable diseases in Ethiopia: because the Israelis don't want them and because the foreign aid arm of the American Jewish community — the JDC — has never pursued an independent and moral policy when it comes to Jews in Ethiopia. The seemingly legitimate questions of personal religious status of some of the so-called Falash Mura is nothing more than racism in disguise. According to a recent article in Ha'aretz, more than 40 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not even Jewish, yet are welcomed with open arms, no questions asked.

Richard Wexler, the UJA chairman, is the first Jewish leader to hint that the American Jewish community might pursue an independent policy from the Israelis on the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. This is the only moral option we have. And time is running out.

The JDC policy of only assisting those Jews who are certified as Jewish by Israeli authorities is an abdication of its responsibilities as an American Jewish organization. Israel does not determine for the Jews of the diaspora who is a Jew; nor can it absolve American Jewry of our historic and heroic responsibility for coming to the aid of our distressed brethren.

As Jews have been dying, fleeing, and being burned in the north of Ethiopia, the Israelis managed to quickly assemble an impressive airlift of medicine and relief supplies to help needy victims — of a terrible earthquake near Afghanistan. It's time to end Israel's double-standard in its immigration and humanitarian policies. And it's time for the American Jewish community to grow up and stop waiting for Israel's leadership or approval.