Ethiopian Death Riles Activists

When Gelaw Ambaw Gubenga arrived on Monday morning at the gates of the
Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the septuagenarian and father of
six hoped to take a giant step toward fulfilling his dream of making aliya
and joining his two brothers in Israel.

Hours later he was dead — having succumbed to old age and persistent
health problems while waiting in line to fill out an immigration
application.

Coming just one day before a group of American Jewish leaders arrived in
Ethiopia on a fact-finding mission, Gubenga’s death was seized upon by
activists as both a symbol and a consequence of Israel’s perceived delay in
allowing the immigration to Israel of some 25,000 Falas Mura, Ethiopians
whose Jewish ancestors are thought to have undergone some kind of
conversion to Christianity.

Activists for the Falas Mura have also criticized the American-based United
Jewish Communities and its associated welfare federations for failing to
provide higher levels of humanitarian aid to the Falas Mura.

“This was a tragedy,” said Avraham Neguise, who heads South Wing to Zion,
an Ethiopian advocacy group based in Israel. According to Mr. Neguise, all
four of Gubenga’s grandparents were Jewish and several of his children are
receiving a religious education at a compound in Addis Ababa operated by
the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

Israeli government officials have repeatedly claimed during the past decade
that no Jews remain in Ethiopia. However, the quasi-governmental Jewish
Agency recently announced that at least another 6,500 Falas Mura will come
to Israel by the end of 2001 under Israel’s Law of Return, which extends
Israeli citizenship to immigrants with at least one Jewish grandparent.
Rabbis from across the religious spectrum have ruled that the Falas Mura
should be brought to Israel since many have adopted a traditional Jewish
life style.

Representatives of South Wing and the Nacoej charge that Israeli officials
have ignored the Law of Return by refusing or hesitating to process the
Falas Mura’s immigration requests. Just last week, under the direction of a
court order, the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa began accepting immigration
requests from the Falas Mura for the first time in more than two years. The
American delegation, comprising leaders of the UJC and a representative of
the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is
investigating whether Israel implemented an effective system for processing
these requests and whether the Falas Mura require additional support.

Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Ariel Kerem, said a major reason for the
delay is the lack of formal record-keeping in the African Horn nation. With
so many Ethiopians seeking to escape the country’s horrendous economic
conditions, he added, Israel must be thorough in its evaluation of each
request.

Prior to last week’s policy shift, the only way for an Ethiopian to apply
for aliya was through a family member already in Israel. Government
officials maintained that the family policy was created to facilitate the
examination of immigration requests, but activists characterized it as a
blatant act of discrimination reserved for Ethiopians.

Supporters of the Falas Mura say Gubenga’s plight is an egregious example
of Israel’s arbitrary handling of Ethiopian immigration. Gubenga’s brothers
received permission to make aliya about two years ago under the Law of
Return, yet he was not given a chance to apply.

Nacoej’s director of Ethiopian programs, Andrew Goldman, said that 10
members of the 8,000-person community in Addis Ababa died last month,
including seven children under the age of 5.

“I don’t know if [Gubenga] would be alive today had he been permitted to
join his two brothers in Israel,” Mr. Goldman said. “But is it symbolic
that he died at the embassy? Very.”

When Gelaw Ambaw Gubenga arrived on Monday morning at the gates of the
Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the septuagenarian and father of
six hoped to take a giant step toward fulfilling his dream of making aliya
and joining his two brothers in Israel.

Hours later he was dead — having succumbed to old age and persistent
health problems while waiting in line to fill out an immigration
application.

Coming just one day before a group of American Jewish leaders arrived in
Ethiopia on a fact-finding mission, Gubenga’s death was seized upon by
activists as both a symbol and a consequence of Israel’s perceived delay in
allowing the immigration to Israel of some 25,000 Falas Mura, Ethiopians
whose Jewish ancestors are thought to have undergone some kind of
conversion to Christianity.

Activists for the Falas Mura have also criticized the American-based United
Jewish Communities and its associated welfare federations for failing to
provide higher levels of humanitarian aid to the Falas Mura.

“This was a tragedy,” said Avraham Neguise, who heads South Wing to Zion,
an Ethiopian advocacy group based in Israel. According to Mr. Neguise, all
four of Gubenga’s grandparents were Jewish and several of his children are
receiving a religious education at a compound in Addis Ababa operated by
the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

Israeli government officials have repeatedly claimed during the past decade
that no Jews remain in Ethiopia. However, the quasi-governmental Jewish
Agency recently announced that at least another 6,500 Falas Mura will come
to Israel by the end of 2001 under Israel’s Law of Return, which extends
Israeli citizenship to immigrants with at least one Jewish grandparent.
Rabbis from across the religious spectrum have ruled that the Falas Mura
should be brought to Israel since many have adopted a traditional Jewish
life style.

Representatives of South Wing and the Nacoej charge that Israeli officials
have ignored the Law of Return by refusing or hesitating to process the
Falas Mura’s immigration requests. Just last week, under the direction of a
court order, the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa began accepting immigration
requests from the Falas Mura for the first time in more than two years. The
American delegation, comprising leaders of the UJC and a representative of
the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is
investigating whether Israel implemented an effective system for processing
these requests and whether the Falas Mura require additional support.

Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Ariel Kerem, said a major reason for the
delay is the lack of formal record-keeping in the African Horn nation. With
so many Ethiopians seeking to escape the country’s horrendous economic
conditions, he added, Israel must be thorough in its evaluation of each
request.

Prior to last week’s policy shift, the only way for an Ethiopian to apply
for aliya was through a family member already in Israel. Government
officials maintained that the family policy was created to facilitate the
examination of immigration requests, but activists characterized it as a
blatant act of discrimination reserved for Ethiopians.

Supporters of the Falas Mura say Gubenga’s plight is an egregious example
of Israel’s arbitrary handling of Ethiopian immigration. Gubenga’s brothers
received permission to make aliya about two years ago under the Law of
Return, yet he was not given a chance to apply.

Nacoej’s director of Ethiopian programs, Andrew Goldman, said that 10
members of the 8,000-person community in Addis Ababa died last month,
including seven children under the age of 5.

“I don’t know if [Gubenga] would be alive today had he been permitted to
join his two brothers in Israel,” Mr. Goldman said. “But is it symbolic
that he died at the embassy? Very.”

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