Years of foot-dragging by the Israeli government in bringing home some 8,000 Falash Mura – “remnants of the descendants of the Jewish Beta Israel community” – in Ethiopia have produced malnutrition, stunted growth and irreversible brain damage in many of the babies and toddlers.
Every month that passes without the government flying the remaining community home means more damaged children, warned Prof. Arthur Eidelman, emeritus chief of pediatrics at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and current editor-in-chief of the journal Breastfeeding Medicine (Volume 13, Number 2). Eidelman made three visits since 2011 to Ethiopia to examine the children.
Ethiopian Jews’ Journey to Israel
As a result of famine caused by a civil war, some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued from Sudan via Brussels in a secret Israeli mission called “Operation Moses” between November 21, 1984 to January 5, 1985. Over those seven weeks, more than 30 flights brought some 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
This emergency exodus was followed in May 1991 by “Operation Solomon,” in which 14,325 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in only 36 hours.
It was then thought that all of Beta Israel had come home. But it turned out that thousands of Falash Mura, many with close relatives who had become Israeli citizens, had been left behind. Forcibly converted by Christian missionaries and others in years of famine, upheaval and ethnic strife in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were not eligible for inclusion under Israel’s Law of Return.
About 50,000 of them were brought to Israel before 2013, but approximately 8,000 in Gondar province and the capital, Addis Ababa, remain.
Three years ago, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in principle to bring those who were left behind, but it has done nothing, while advocates claim the problem is financing their integration and others blame “racism.”
The Beta Israel community here have been holding weekly peaceful demonstrations outside the Jerusalem home of Interior Minister and Knesset Member Aryeh Deri, begging the minister to help bring these Ethiopians to Israel. The heads of the community have also threatened to carry out a hunger strike.
President Reuven Rivlin recently made a state visit to Ethiopia to bolster business and diplomatic ties to the country and to encourage Israeli aid and development assistance (but not specifically to the Falash Mura community) and to Africa in general. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home Party), MK Avraham Neguise (Likud and himself a former Ethiopian Jewish immigrant) and others have visited the community in the impoverished African country, but the government has made no announcement about aliyah.
The Heart of Israel, a program of the Binyamin Fund, and its director, A.Y. Katsof, have been working closely with the Ethiopian-Israeli community to pressure the government to bring these Ethiopians home. Katsof has even received promises from two Binyamin Region municipalities that they would help resettle the Ethiopians in the biblical heartland.
Katsof said not only are these Ethiopians considered Jewish according to a decision made by the late Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but they are willing to undergo a “just-in-case” conversion to alleviate any doubt. The community lives Jewish lives in Ethiopia, he said. Katsof has made two visits to the community, where members pray three times a day, study Hebrew and Torah, and keep the laws of kosher.
Recently, Katsof raised $25,000 on behalf of the last Jews of Ethiopia, the first steps of what will be a year-long campaign to feed the impoverished Jews of Ethiopia and to bring them back, even if one at a time.
He said bringing the last Ethiopian Jews back to Israel is fulfillment of prophecy.
“He will hold up a signal to the nations And assemble the banished of Yisrael, And gather the dispersed of Yehuda From the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:12)
Effects of Malnutrition
Eidelman, a world-renowned expert on the nutrition of young children, said that “malnutrition is a common phenomenon worldwide and a major public health problem, particularly in developing poorer countries like Ethiopia.”
At the request of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, he spent two weeks in Gondar to examine the young children of the Falash Mura, who live in cities and thus cannot grow their own food. Eidelman’s aim was to update and assess the nutritional status of youngsters from birth to age five in the Gondar area (the community in the capital of Addis Ababa is about half the size) and compare it to those from previous visits.
A questionnaire was used to collect sociodemographic data, nutritional history and other parameters, while each child was checked for weight, height-for-age and medical condition.
The findings were somewhat less dramatic than in 2011, when the malnutrition rate ranged as high as 50%, but still serious. “Our results were that among 489 youngsters up to the age of five (representing over 90% of the age group), the overall prevalence of malnutrition was 39.1%, with wasting occurring in 22%, underweight in 26% and stunted growth in 18.4%. Severe wasting, underweight, and stunting occurred in 8.4%, 8.2% and 5.3% of the children, respectively.
Some of the children even suffered from rickets, usually caused by vitamin D deficiency, which results in soft or weak bones, bowed legs, bone pain and stunted growth and, if serious, could result in an abnormally curved spine and cognitive deficiency.
The child’s gender, family income, the mother’s educational level, the presence of illness in the month before examination and the number of family members did not show any association with the prevalence of malnutrition, wrote Eidelman in his study. The average family income per month is just $60, and the average family size is 5.1 individuals. Thus, it was not surprising that child health in general and nutritional status of children in particular were serious public health concerns.” Younger children were found to be more malnourished than older children,” he declared. Although most of the mothers breastfed their babies during the first six months, the babies were not safe from malnutrition because the women themselves had an inadequate diet and could not nurse them enough.
The Falash Mura live in closed communities, and other Ethiopians cannot reside there. The conditions in the Gondar compound for the Falash Mura is “subhuman,” according to Eidelman. “There is a synagogue but no real school services. The medical situation is also problematic,” he continued. “Most adults don’t have decent jobs. There is not enough clean water, no meat and almost no dairy products. The injera bread they make and on which they subsist is of marginal quality.”
Bringing the Falash Mura Home?
“The Falash Mura must be brought home immediately, Eidelman told Breaking Israel News. “The Israeli government decided to bring them, and a list of their names even exists, but what was not decided was how fast to bring them. The American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), represented in Ethiopia by Dr. Rick Hodes, decided to disengage from the Falash Mura in 2013 and not to give them any services, because they were told that the government did not regard them as ‘having potential for aliya.’”
If a child who is seven or eight years old doesn’t get enough of the right type of food, continued the Jerusalem pediatrician, “he could be susceptible to infection; but if you rehabilitate him, he may be fine. But if he is a baby or a toddler below the age of two or three years, he will suffer irreversible brain damage. What is most disturbing to me is that all these families, and their children by name, are on an Israeli government list of people approved to ultimately come to Israel. Why drag this out and bring only a handful every year?”
Neguise, who is chairman of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, told Breaking Israel News that “in 2013, the Falash Mura who couldn’t prove that their mother was Jewish and that they had three Jewish grandparents were not allowed to come. There was a unanimous government decision in 2015 that whoever had a Jewish father and first-degree relatives living here could come on aliyah. But 7,691 were listed and not brought here.”
Almost 1,000 of the Falash Mura have children in Israel, he said, while 2,200 have parents and 2,500 have brothers and sisters, who are first-degree relatives, while an additional 2,300 have cousins, aunts and uncles, who are second-degree relatives, in Israel.
The Ethiopia-born MK said that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon assured him that “it is not a budget problem. The prime minister is at the head of the pyramid, and he has to decide.”
Neguise complained that he and colleagues contacted the JDC, “but they didn’t even react to our letter. They are not interested in helping. The JDC worries about education, medicine and agriculture for the non-Jews in Ethiopia. It’s absurd. The organization takes Jewish money but doesn’t give to the Jews who want to come on aliyah. Even if they are not considered Jews, they will convert. American Jews talk about Tikkun Olam [repairing the world], but they aren’t doing it.”
The MK contended that if groups of Jewish origin from Europe who yearned for aliyah had been approved, they would not be waiting to come home. “These are poor, poorly educated Africans, and absorbing them will cost some money.” The MK estimated that the cost of settling all the remaining Falash Mura in Israel over 10 years was about 1.5 billion shekels (approximately $410 million).
Whose Responsibility Is It?
Rabbi Menachem Waldman, a Jewish Agency employee who has written books about the Beta Israel and Falash Mura and has for 30 years been regarded as their rabbi, was also critical of the JDC, which “since 2013 hasn’t helped at all.”
However, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem has said that if and when the government brings Falash Mura home, it will donate money to help them integrate, as it has in the past.
Refuting claims, even from within the Beta Israel Community that the Falash Mura are not really connected to Judaism and want to escape poverty in Africa, Waldman – a major activist in the effort to bring them on aliyah – said this was a slanderous lie. “The same charge was made against Beta Israel before Operations Moses and Solomon. If they weren’t of Jewish origin, they wouldn’t have waited for decades in Africa. They observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays and pray daily in Hebrew in their ramshackle synagogues.”
Asked to comment, JDC assistant executive vice president for special operations Amir Shaviv told Breaking Israel News: “The JDC concluded its work with the Falash Mura in Ethiopia at the time that the government of Israel announced officially the end of aliyah with the final group of Falash Mura arriving in Israel in 2013. Currently, the government of Ethiopia must authorize any kind of sectarian assistance operation by foreign organizations. The JDC does not have such license and will probably not receive one.”
Shaviv added that “the JDC has no position nor role determining the Jewish status of this group nor of their eligibility for aliyah. This is a matter, respectively, for the chief rabbinate and the government of Israel. It is not true, therefore, what Rabbi Waldman says, that JDC ‘does not recognize’ the Falash Mura.”
The JDC, in its “ongoing conversations with advocates of the Falash Mura, has repeatedly pointed out – and they agreed – that since the government of Israel has already resolved to bring the eligible individuals from this group to Israel, the government can, if it only wishes so, make it happen extremely fast, applying resources to expedite this process.” Shaviv concluded that “the onus is on the government to identify those found eligible (those who have first-degree relatives) from this group and bring them to Israel. That is the best, quickest and most compassionate solution to their situation.”
But Eidelman disagreed. “The JDC has the basic fact wrong. Aliyah to Israel did not end in 2013. It continues at a snail’s pace, but is still the official policy of the government of Israel to bring the remaining Falash Mura home. JDC’s representative in Ethiopia, Dr. Hodes, does not recognize the existence of the Falash Mura as a Jewish community, despite the fact that they are so recognized by the State of Israel. The ultimate problem is the unwillingness of the Prime Minister’s Office to act.”
David Becker, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office who was asked to comment on the issue, would say only that “a few weeks ago, we discussed the issue of family unification for members of the Gondar and Addis Ababa (Falash Mura) communities. It was decided that further consultation would be held prior to a decision.”