One hundred and thirty-nine former immigrants from Ethiopia sued the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee this week for more than NIS 5 million for allegedly refusing to pay them for their work at the refugee compound before the mass evacuation to Israel.
The lawsuits were filed by Attorney Oded Yisraeli on behalf of each individual plaintiff in the Tel Aviv District Labor Court. "During the period [the plaintiffs were] employed in the various jobs," wrote Yisraeli, "the respondents' representatives promised to pay them properly for their work after they reached Israel.
Unfortunatelyâ€¦the respondents later turned their backs on them and refused to keep their promises."
The lawsuits focus on the year 1990, after Israel and Ethiopia re-established diplomatic relations and Israel re-opened its embassy in Addis Ababa. Thousands of Jews flocked to the Ethiopian capital and established a compound around the embassy, waiting to be taken to Israel.
During that year, the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee provided services to the 12,000 refugees in the compound. A number of them were hired to renovate houses, build a consular section adjacent to the Israeli embassy, a synagogue and a 30-classroom school. Some were hired as teachers, to provide meals to the students or to build a protective wall around the embassy.
Others served as paymasters, translators, gardeners, carpenters and mediators between the embassy and the compound inhabitants, or made home visits to see who needed medical help.
"What we see here is the exploitation of the naivet of an entire community who were not experienced in the tricky wording of government institutions and other organizations and were, in most cases, illiterate and therefore did not understand the precise meaning of the documents of appreciation they received," said Yisraeli.
In 2000, a group of Ethiopians sued the state for similar damages and were granted NIS 30,000 each. The current plaintiffs are asking for NIS 34,000.