New reports dispute alleged persecution of the Falash Mura

NEW YORK — Are Ethiopia's Falash Mura being persecuted as Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors?

Israeli Knesset member and Ethiopian immigrant Adisu Massala, who returned last week from the African nation, says they are not suffering persecution. His announcement disputes last month's reports from activist groups.

In June, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry charged that the Falash Mura — who consider themselves Jewish and want to immigrate to Israel but are not recognized as Jews by the Israeli government — were being subjected to "pogroms."

After visiting Ethiopia and interviewing Falash Mura from 10 villages in June, NACOEJ leaders said hundreds of the Falash Mura were being persecuted as Jews, burned out of their homes by their non-Jewish neighbors and screamed at to "go to Israel."

Their reports were backed by an Israeli activist group called South Wing to Zion, which also sent travelers to the East African nation.

But Massala said upon his return to Jerusalem last week that he found no evidence that Falash Mura were being persecuted. He called on the Israeli government to concentrate instead on rescuing some 1,000 Ethiopians in the remote Kwara region whose Jewishness is not in dispute.

A Labor Party member, Massala was accompanied in Ethiopia by representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Israel's Interior Ministry. He said he did see two tukuls, or huts, that had been burned. But he said that the arson appeared to be the result of a quarrel among neighbors.

And when he checked into reports that a girl had been burned alive, he was told by the child's father that the incident happened seven years ago, when she was hit by a shell that fell on the village.

Ami Bergman, the JDC representative who accompanied Massala on the trip, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem that the delegation had heard conflicting reports about the circumstances of the child's death, with the mother maintaining that she died in late 1996 when their tukul was set on fire.

But Bergman supported Massala's conclusion about anti-Jewish persecution.

"We found there were no pogroms in the villages," he said.

Officials of the JDC and of NACOEJ — the two leading providers of social services to Jews and Falash Mura in Ethiopia — have for weeks been warring over the reality of what is happening there.

The answer to that question is timely, because the Israeli government and the JDC are in the process of closing down their operations in Ethiopia — 14 years after the historic Operation Moses rescue mission began.

The last official planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel at the end of June, and JDC has virtually shut down its compound in Addis Ababa, where thousands of Ethiopians waiting to make aliyah once lived. Currently some 60 to 150 Ethiopians remain in the compound, and they have already been cleared for immigration to Israel.

NACOEJ maintains that it, too, wants to close up shop in Ethiopia, so that it can concentrate on the absorption needs of Ethiopians already in Israel. Its board voted last week to shut down its program as soon as the JDC compound has been emptied of the remaining Falash Mura.

But the organization believes that Israel has a moral obligation to assist Falash Mura if they are being persecuted as Jews.

Debate over the extent of trouble in Ethiopia is "happening now because we brought back news from Ethiopia that no one wants to hear," said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, NACOEJ's executive director. "Because if it is true, then people have to do something about it.

"There are Jewish people and Beta Israel in terrible, terrible trouble in Ethiopia," said Gordon, using the Hebrew term some Falash Mura have used to describe themselves. "Pretending they are not in trouble is a way to give yourself permission to do nothing about it."