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(photo credit: Courtesy of Dr. Arthur Eidelman)
Delays by the government and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in reopening a health clinic in the northern Ethiopian province of Gondar could have fatal consequences for the Jews there waiting to be approved for aliya, a prominent Israeli doctor told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
"The people there are potentially suffering from malnutrition and other problems that if treated by a primary healthcare physician could be avoided," Dr. Arthur I. Eidelman, former head of pediatrics at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, told the Post.
Eidelman, who was in Gondar last week and visited a hospital serving the general population, said that he came across a young Jewish boy with serious complications of bacterial meningitis that he believes could have been prevented if he'd received consistent medical care.
The Joint Distribution Committee clinic, which had served the local Jews for the past few years, was closed two months ago, and community members were urged to seek alternative medical facilities. According to Eidelman, there are very few such options available.
"It does not make any sense. These people have already been recognized as Jews by a rabbinic authority, and the Israeli government has agreed to consider them for aliya, but there are no medical services to protect them from basic health problems," he said. Their medical issues could end up following them to Israel, he said.
A spokesman for Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who recently visited Ethiopia and has been active in reigniting the flow of aliya from there, said the JDC had been approached at least twice in the past few months to reopen its clinic, but the minister has yet to receive an answer.
The JDC confirmed on Thursday that it had been approached by Yishai to consider reopening its clinic in Gondar.
"We are in a process of discussions," explained spokeswoman Orly Doron. "We need to see how much it would cost and how many people need to be served."
She said that if negotiations between the JDC and the government were successful, the clinic could be opened as early as next week.
The clinic, which was providing services to some 8,700 Falash Mura - Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th century - closed its doors on July 1 following an Israeli government announcement in 2008 that Ethiopian aliya had come to an end.
Although the Interior Ministry had already recalled its Gondar-based staff, and other Israeli and Jewish organizations working there had started to wind down activities, an outcry from local community members, representatives of North American Jewry and several key Israeli legislators claiming there are still thousands more Falash Mura who fit the criteria for aliya forced the government to reassess its decision.
In July, immediately following the closure of the clinic, the Interior Ministry announced that it would resume eligibility checks through September for an initial 3,000 people. Yishai's spokesman said on Thursday that these checks had already started but none of those waiting had yet reached Israel.
"I just hope that if the clinic reopens, it will not only be for those being checked by the Israeli government," Eidelman said. "The JDC funds many projects in Ethiopia, some of them for the non-Jewish population, too, so why shouldn't they help these Jews who have fallen through the cracks?"