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An Ethiopian Israeli woman holds pictures of relatives as she protests in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Monday, March 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
An Ethiopian Israeli woman holding pictures of relatives as she protests in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP)
ToI investigates'People don't understand why the government doesn't act'

As Israel okays some Ethiopian immigrants, thousands more ‘face disaster’

Funds to feed families waiting years in Addis, Gondar are drying up because of COVID-19, with malnutrition rampant; Aliya Minister Tamano-Shata urges to honor 2015 airlift decision

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Main image by An Ethiopian Israeli woman holding pictures of relatives as she protests in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP)

The government on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to budget money so some 2,000 Ethiopians can immigrate to Israel by year’s end. Left behind will be some 12,000 others who have been waiting years to immigrate and are now facing a humanitarian disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to people working with the community, who say they must be brought to Israel as soon as possible.

While there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among the Ethiopians in Gondar and Addis Ababa waiting to come to Israel, the disease is spreading rapidly in Ethiopia, with some 1,500 new infections daily and over 950 deaths to date. Severe malnutrition is also rife.

Neither the Israeli government nor the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization, are sending support. The Jewish Agency, which has no authority to airlift people without a government decision, has, however, been helping what appears to be the sole organization to be raising some funds and providing aid on the ground — the volunteer-based Struggle To Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ).

About 9,000 of the would-be immigrants have been waiting for 15 or more years to immigrate, local activists say. About a quarter of that total, located in the capital Addis Ababa, have been waiting for more than 20 years, they say, while the rest, in Gondar city, have been hanging on for 15 to 20 years.

Joe Feit, chairman of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jews, with friends. (Courtesy, Joe Feit)

All these thousands left their villages and farms for the two cities to eke out an existence from casual labor until, they have hoped, they will be airlifted to Israel. Most live in mud structures, among Christian neighbors.

Internal refugees

The coronavirus has hit the group very hard economically, The Times of Israel has been told by several sources. Work has dried up and food is in short supply, with prices up by 35 to 50 to percent; families in Israel who previously sent their relatives money are strapped for cash because of their own COVID-19 related problems, and philanthropic organizations are less able to raise donations due to the pandemic.

SSEJ’s medical director, Dr. Morris Hartstein, an American-born Israeli in charge of ophthalmic, plastic and reconstructive surgery at Yitzhak Shamir Medical Center near Tel Aviv, has been the sole eye care provider to the waiting Ethiopians for many years, also treating some of their Christian neighbors.

Dr. Morris Hartstein performs eye tests in Gondar, Ethiopia. (Courtesy: Morris Hartstein)

As a volunteer, who pays for his own flights and hotel, he has personally examined more than 6,000 people, providing spectacles as well as eye drops for a range of diseases and carrying out surgery for conditions such as cataracts and trachoma. He also trains Ethiopian eye surgeons.

“Most of the people I see have never seen a doctor and can’t afford the 50 cents it costs to be examined,” he said.

Three years ago, Hartstein and his son Jonah, then 15, helped to examine nearly 1,000 children aged under five in Gondar’s camp. Almost half were found to suffer from severe malnutrition at levels higher than the general Gondar population. (The initiative was part of a project run together with public health officials from Gondar University and Prof. Arthur Eidelman, former head of pediatrics at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.)

“These people are like internal refugees. If they don’t find work, they don’t have money and then they just don’t eat,” said Hartstein, who last visited in November.

A young, malnourished child with an oversized head. (Courtesy: Morris Hartstein)

“We are facing a humanitarian disaster. I’m particularly worried about the kids under five. They’re already undernourished and the situation is worse since the coronavirus. I saw so many children with arms like sticks, with heads that were too big.”

“We don’t have enough money,” he added. “We’re waiting for the Israeli government to help — now.”

The SSEJ decided to launch a food program in Gondar — it doesn’t have the funds to do so in Addis Ababa as well — focusing on the under-five-year-olds, the group most vulnerable to the lasting developmental effects of malnutrition.

Dr. Morris Hartstein stands with a healthy nine-year-old (left) and a malnourished child of the same age in Gondar. (Courtesy: Morris Hartstein)

Funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and, until June, the Jewish Agency (which is seeking funds to continue), the program started with 350 children and is now feeding 510 with meals twice a day, in addition to 199 mothers who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The children are regularly measured and monitored by medical professionals.

SSEJ has raised enough money to buy 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of the grain staple, teff, for each family in Gondar and Addis Ababa to get them through the upcoming Jewish High Holidays.

Under-fives being weighed at the camp in Gondar, before coronavirus. (Courtesy, Nigusie Alemu)

To protect them from COVID-19, a cader of young members of the community has been trained to go door to door to check on people, to see if they have a fever or cough or need a doctor, and to show them how to take hygiene precautions against the pandemic.

“We hired a local doctor to check anyone who is sick. We are sitting waiting for coronavirus to explode. If we run out of funds, I’m not sure what will happen until they bring them here, which is the obvious solution,” Hartstein said.

Almost half of under-fives were found to suffer from severe malnutrition at levels higher than for the Gondar population in general.

The SSEJ has just one paid employee, Nigusie Alemu, 42, who immigrated to Israel in 1998 after waiting for eight years in Addis Ababa. He has spent four years working for the organization on the ground in Ethiopia, rarely seeing his daughter, Maayan, 13, who lives in the central Israeli city of Lod.

“The situation is insufferable,” he told The Times of Israel by phone. “If it wasn’t easy before, it’s now very serious. ”

Nigusie Alemu trying to persuade a child to wear a face mask. (Courtesy: Nigusie Alemu)

He said that in addition to the young paramedics doing the rounds in community homes, the Gondar health authorities came to the community’s synagogue to check around 150 people. The SSEJ distributes masks and has set up handwashing stations. But, says Alemu, only 15%-20% of the general, Christian population are wearing masks in Gondar.

‘They’re so helpless’

Alemu oversees the food program for the under-fives. “Those over five get hardly anything. You see them with their torn clothes and shoes and with shirts they’ve worn for three years. They are very thin and have swollen bellies,” he said, citing a sign of malnutrition.

The State of Israel doesn’t understand what motivated young people it’s missing, kids who want to progress and study and serve in the army.

Until coronavirus struck, the children went to school and attended SSEJ-funded afterschool programs. There were summer camps and adult education classes too.

Maintenance of the compounds in the two cities continues, as well as a medical program for the under-fives in Gondar and for the over 60s in both Gondar and Addis Ababa.

The Jewish Agency is helping to feed elderly people and to support a hygiene program that has seen tons of soap, masks, thermometers, face shields and other protective equipment shipped out from Israel.

“We’ve spent close to $500,000 since April and I expect we’ll need to spend around $1 million by the end of the year,” said SSEJ chairman Joe Feit.

A young Ethiopian with stocks of food to be distributed to the under-fives in Gondar. (Courtesy: Nigusie Alemu)

Alemu added: “What frightens me most, if the Israeli government doesn’t take them soon, or there is no organized program, is that the economic and health situation will become irreversible. I worry that the older kids, aged 17 and 18, will be dragged into crime. A hungry person can go to any lengths.”

He said that “the State of Israel doesn’t understand what motivated young people it’s missing out on, kids who want to progress and study and serve in the army. It’s very hard for me.

Sorting eggs to be distributed to under-fives in Gondar. (Courtesy: Morris Hartstein)

“These people don’t understand why the government doesn’t bring them. They hear about racism in Israel, but they are very connected to their faith and don’t want to speak badly about Israel. They are so helpless.”

Dispute over the numbers

Both the Population and Immigration Authority and the Aliyah and Absorption Ministry believe that some 8,000 Ethiopians who have been waiting since before 2010 still need to be brought to Israel.

Activists claim that figure should be higher.

In 2015, the community itself recorded the details of every member and submitted a list to the government of 9,400 people, The Times of Israel was told. The 9,000 estimated to be waiting in Ethiopia today is based on subtracting those who died or emigrated since and adding for natural growth.

More significantly, activists say that an additional group of around 5,000 individuals from Gojam and Atchefer — some 500 kilometers (310 miles) to the south of Gondar — joined the thousands at the Gondar camp around 10 years ago but, to date, do not appear on government lists. The Times of Israel was unable to ascertain whether Aliyah Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is personally familiar with this group. Assimilation came late to this region and initial investigations by Orthodox rabbis suggest that some 90 percent are full Jews who can prove a connection to a matrilineal line.

The government completed the airlift of the “Beta Israel” Ethiopian Jews in the 1990s. But, it has been split over accepting into Israel the remaining so-called Falash Mura, who converted to Christianity and do not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return, despite rulings by the likes of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that Jews forced to convert to Christianity were “unquestionably Jews in every respect.” (Falash Mura is a pejorative term. The preferred description is “remnants of Ethiopian Jewry.”)

Backed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi and spiritual leader of the Shas Party, which currently controls the Interior Ministry, Amar ruled that it was forbidden to question this community’s Jewishness.  

New Ethiopian immigrants boarding an aircraft en route from Addis Ababa to Israel during Operation Solomon, 1991. (Natan Alpert/GPO)

But because of the different categorizations, families have been ripped apart, with some in Israel and others waiting in Ethiopia, while successive governments have decided not to decide.

In November 2015, the government did pass a decision — to airlift “the last of the community” waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar to Israel. To meet the requirements of Decision 716, candidates must have been waiting since January 1, 2010 at the latest, appear on an official updated list, have first-degree relatives in Israel who have asked for them to come, and agree to undergo official state-backed conversion to Judaism.

Akoye Endalew Tsega, 26, right, hugs a relative goodbye on May 10, 2008, before embarking on a journey to immigrate to Israel. He leaves behind his mother, who was not chosen by Israeli officials to move to the promised land. (AP Photo)

Since that decision, however, just 2,257 Ethiopians have been airlifted to the Jewish state, in dribs and drabs, according to Jewish Agency figures.

The minister’s plan

On August 19, Tamano-Shata, Israel’s first-ever Ethiopian-born cabinet minister, and the person in charge of aliyah and immigrant absorption, presented a NIS 1.3 billion ($382.6 million) framework to the Knesset aliyah committee to bring 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel and to close the camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa for good. Some of the funding was allocated his week.

If implemented, the plan would see the first 4,500 — all those meeting the conditions of the 2015 decision — brought to Israel between October and the end of December this year and housed in absorption centers or sent straight to various local authorities, according to her vision.

MK Pnina Tamano-Shata at a Blue and White party conference in Rehovot, February 18, 2020. (Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90)

A special committee for exceptional cases would be set up to adjudicate the cases of those still in Ethiopia, as well as an appeals committee for anyone turned down. Approval would depend on several conditions, including proof of having waited at one of the camps since December 2015 at the latest and of having a second-degree relative in Israel. It would also consider people in “special circumstances.”

A further 3,500 people would then be airlifted between 2021 and 2022, after which the camps — non-residential centers with facilities such as synagogues and classrooms — would be dismantled.

Finally, a separate, permanent advisory committee would be established to decide whether any additional individuals asking to become Israeli citizens could do so via the Law of Return.

Tamano-Shata, who made aliyah as part of Operation Moses in 1984 when she was three years old, rose from a childhood in an absorption center to a career as an activist, journalist and politician for Blue and White.

Blue and White MK Pnina Tamano Shata (L) speaks to a voter outside of a polling station in Kiryat Malachi on March 2, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

As she told The Times of Israel in an interview recently, “We’re talking about just a handful of thousands, between 7,000 and 10,000. We can absorb them and close the [transit] camps [in Ethiopia]. This is a human issue, an apolitical question. Everyone is served by a framework that expedites the immigration while closing the camps. I won’t accept dragging this out with 400 [immigrants a month].”

She insists that the Falash Mura are “anusim,” or Jews forced to convert to Christianity, but who have kept alive the knowledge that they are Jews. She says  “it’s clear that there’s a consensus among the kaisim (Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders) and among everyone else that they need to be brought on aliyah. They have returned to Judaism.”

Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Avishai Finkelstein)

Helping her to keep up the pressure is an organization of Ethiopian Israelis and activists called The Struggle to Bring the Jews of Ethiopia, which posts daily on Facebook.

Last month, it posted a picture of President Reuven Rivlin joining the call to bring the Ethiopians to Israel.

"אני קורא מכאן לממשלת ישראל גם בתקופה מורכבת זו למצוא את הדרך להסדיר את נושא עליית יהודי אתיופיה, נושא ששב ועולה על סדר…

פורסם על ידי ‏המאבק להעלאת יהודי אתיופיה‏ ב- יום ראשון, 16 באוגוסט 2020

Lawmaker Michal Cotler-Wunsch (Blue and White), whose father Erwin Cotler, the human rights activist and former Canadian Justice Minister, serves as legal counsel to the SSEJ, said, “ It’s unbelievable that the state isn’t giving money to ensure these people have something to eat. It’s unbelievable that they’re not here already.”

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