(photo credit: Courtesy )
A collection of American-Jewish organizations, with the full support of the Ethiopian government, are charging ahead with plans to open a Jewish school and continue aid operations in Ethiopia, even as the Israeli government is attempting to wind down its aliya operations and pull out of the African nation, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), with funding from the United Jewish Communities and some local Jewish Federations, was given the green light by the Ethiopian authorities to establish a 30-room Jewish school in the Northern Ethiopian town of Gondar, where thousands of Falash Mura - Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity a century ago - are currently waiting to find out if they are eligible to make aliya under a special clause in the Law of Entry.
In the meantime, Israel's Interior Ministry claims that it has completed its work of verifying eligibility of aliya for the country's remaining Jewish-connected population and its officials will be returning from there in the coming days, even though many Ethiopian Israelis say they still have close relatives living in Ethiopia. Immigration from the African country is expected to be completed by next summer, Israeli government officials have said.
Several months ago, representatives of NACOEJ met with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and the Ethiopian authorities voiced their commitment to continue working with the American Jewish organizations even after the Israeli government ends its work there. In fact, the local Gondar Municipality has given NACOEJ free land for the Jewish school, the organization said.
"As you know, the Government of Ethiopia is very interested in reinforcing the long-standing ties between the people of Ethiopia and the worldwide Jewish community," wrote Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia's Ambassador to the US in a recent letter to UJC President and CEO Howard Rieger. "This bond reaches back to antiquity through our relationship with the people of Israel, and is as strong today as it has ever been. We are also making sure that our generation of Ethiopians transmits our feelings of kinship with the Jewish people to Ethiopian youth." Former NACOEJ president Joseph Feit told the Post that the purpose of the new school is to continue to educate Ethiopian children that have maternal links to the Beta Israel community.
"According to the current Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, and former Chief Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Ovadia Yosef, such children are Jewish," said Feit.
NACOEJ and many Ethiopian Israelis claim that roughly 8500 people eligible to come to Israel under stipulations laid out in a 2003 Israeli government resolution are now being overlooked by the current leadership.
"The determination of who is eligible for aliya is a matter of Israeli law and the scope of the government's decision in 2003 is currently pending decision by Israel's Supreme Court," continued Feit.
He added that NACOEJ, a Diaspora-Jewish relief organization, "must take into account the views of Israel's Chief Rabbinate and virtually all other Jewish religious authority, which stipulate that all maternally linked children are Jewish and should be provided with the best possible Jewish and secular education." According to NACOJ, architectural plans have been drawn up for the school, with much of the equipment already purchased. Construction on the site is expected to begin within the next few months.