Second Falash Mura Aid Center Abruptly Shut
Originally from The Jewish Week New York
Nearly two years after the closing of a compound in the capital of Ethiopia – one of two privately run facilities that fed and educated destitute members of the Falash Mura community – the other compound, in the northern city of Gondar, closed abruptly this week, The Jewish Week has learned.
The closing of the Gondar compound by the operating organization following threats against its local leadership leaves some 10,000 Falash Mura without a source for their daily meals.
The suspension of activities at the Gondar facility, ordered by leadership of the Falash Mura-led Association of Bete-Israels in Gondar, followed the arrest on Monday of Getu Zemene, an Ethiopian who serves as administrator of the Gondar compound, according to the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which has supported the social service programs in the African country since 1982.
Zemene was released on ‘symbolic bail’ on Wednesday and was hoping to resume running the NACOEJ compound, an Ethiopian activist in Israel told The Jewish Week Wednesday.
The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to the country’s dominant Christian religion a century ago, and have attempted to return to the Jewish fold in recent decades. Ineligible for the massive rescue missions of 1984 and 1991, they have applied for permission to settle in Israel.
Zemene, who has Jewish roots but does not identify as a member of the Falash Mura community, was taken into custody by Gondar police and brought to Addis Ababa, the capital, for interrogations by national police, who had issued an arrest warrant for him last year, said Amsala Tsehye, his attorney. Tsehye did not indicate why the arrest warrant was not served until this week.
Zemene was being held in an Addis Ababa jail this week, but had not been charged with a crime, Tsehye told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa. “His treatment was not bad,” Tsehye said. “He is not scared.”
More than 3,000 members of the Falash Mura community in Gondar held a rally outside a police station there on Monday to protest Zemene’s arrest, said Avraham Neguise, the Ethiopian-born general manager of South Wing to Zion, an advocacy group in Jerusalem.
“Women are crying. Children are crying,” Neguise said. “A terrible thing is happening. The community now is in a terrible situation. People are starving.”
Falash Mura, many of whom had left their small plots of farmland in the northern countryside and were dependent on NACOEJ feeding programs, will likely take to begging for food in Gondar, as they did in Addis Ababa when the compound there was closed, Neguise said. “Future citizens of Israel are begging on the streets.”
Neguise said the Bete Israel association decided to close the Gondar compound after Zemene’s arrest to prevent dissidents, in a leadership vacuum, from taking over the compound. “There is no one to handle the managing.”
The closing of the Gondar compound and the arrest of its leader follow several years of conflict, both open and clandestine, involving New York-based humanitarian organizations that operate in Ethiopia, the Israeli and Ethiopian governments, and members of the Falash Mura community, who are awaiting permission to immigrate to Israel.
Estimates of the number of Falash Mura in Ethiopia range between 14,000 and 20,000. Successive Israeli governments have pledged to bring all the Falash Mura to Israel and speed up the immigration rate, but the number who come each month remains about 300.
Israel’s Supreme Court, ruling on a petition brought by pro-Ethiopian activist attorneys on behalf of 379 Ethiopian families, two weeks ago gave the government 60 days to detail how the increased immigration of the Falash Mura will be carried out. “We stress the need for urgent attention to the subject that has been pending before us for a long time, with humanitarian aspects that require the implementation of concrete steps toward its resolution,” the ruling stated.
Zemene and other leaders of the Gondar compound received death threats in recent years, allegedly from disgruntled Ethiopians who had been refused permission to immigrate to Israel and are seeking to impede operations at the compound, Neguise said. The dissidents brought various complaints of impropriety to the police, which resulted in the arrest warrant against Zemene, he said.
“They want to destroy the community, as they did in Addis Ababa,” Neguise said, referring to similar unrest at the NACOEJ compound in the capital two years ago.
That facility, which had served some 3,000 to 4,000 indigent Falash Mura, was closed temporarily by the organization at the end of 2004, then closed again early in 2005, remaining closed, because of threats against Falash Mura leaders and internecine disputes within the Falash Mura community, according to Orlee Guttman, NACOEJ chief of operations.
Some Ethiopians, bitter for being fired from teaching positions at the compound and deemed to be lacking certification to teach by the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, had complained about working conditions at the compound and made threats against the staff and elected leaders of the community, leading NACOEJ to close its facility, Guttman said.
A report in April from the Bete-Israel association to the Gondar City District Council cites, “notorious elements” in their midst “who…in pursuit of their personal need for power…currently disturb the pure Israelites [with proven Jewish lineage].” According to the document, unnamed individuals “are striving to disperse all the Jews in Ethiopia.”
The Gondar compound, which serves some 10,000 Falash Mura, remained open until this week.
The Jewish Week reported last year that a few people close to the Falash Mura community claimed that the charges against NACOEJ were encouraged by representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which supports a medical clinic in Addis Ababa and smaller compound in Gondar, and has had an adversarial relationship at times with NACOEJ.
A JDC spokesman this week declined to comment on the developments in Gondar, stating that the organizations “medical services are continuing uninterrupted.”
The Jewish Agency announced last year that it would take over operation of the NACOEJ compounds, as part of the increased relocation effort, but the government’s interministerial committee on the Falash Mura did not approve the budget, and the compounds remained NACOEJ’s responsibility.
“The longer the Beta Israel stay in Ethiopia, the longer they will be exposed to groups such as this [dissident] one,” Guttman said. “Until now different Jewish groups have all worked separately regarding these Jews, with very different agendas. Now is the time for Israel, the UJC, the Jewish Agency, JDC and NACOEJ to finally work together to make sure that the community is protected.”
South Wing to Zion will sponsor “a huge demonstration” on Sunday in front of the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, and will demand that the Jewish Agency immediately assume responsibility for the pair of compounds, Neguise said.
“The government is continuing to discriminate against the [Falash Mura] community, he said, adding that money raised in the United Jewish Communities’ $160 million fund-raising campaign on behalf of Ethiopian and Soviet Jewry has not yet supported specific programs in Ethiopia. “Not a single dollar has reached the community so far.”
However, a UJC spokesman said Operation Promise funds have already been spent in Ethiopia.