Time to make a difference

Currently there are over 9,000 Ethiopians who identify as Jews residing in Ethiopia – most of whom have first-degree relatives who have already made aliya.

By JEROME M. EPSTEIN
March 13, 2016 20:26
3 minute read.
Brian Hendler

Ethiopian immigrants greet family members in 2010. (photo credit: BRIAN HENDLER)

 
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Esther, the heroine of Purim narrative, almost lost the opportunity to save her people, not because of an external force but because she could not imagine the impact that she, one woman, could have.

Yet, we all know that when she accepted the challenge of her uncle Mordecai to act, she single-handedly changed the course of history. At this very moment, we are being boldly challenged to respond to the plight of our fellow Jews stranded in Ethiopia and change the course of their future.

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Currently there are over 9,000 Ethiopians who identify as Jews residing in Ethiopia – most of whom have first-degree relatives who have already made aliya. According to the November 2015 decision of Israel’s cabinet, there is a commitment to permit the aliya and absorption of any Ethiopian who had previously moved to Gondar or Addis Ababa, who has relatives in Israel who will apply for his/her acceptance and who is willing to formally convert to Judaism – to prevent any doubt regarding Jewish identity.

The cabinet did not make a nebulous decision that would be implemented only when the time was “right” or “convenient.”

Rather, this aliya was to be completed within five years.

We are currently nearly five months later. The government has now indicated that any further action to begin this aliya will be delayed until the 2017 budget has been accepted.

Members of Knesset Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem have cried out in outrage at the insensitivity of the Jewish homeland toward those who seek refuge. Danny Hirschberg, general secretary of B’nei Akiva, has decried the show of indifference, stating that “every day that goes by endangers the lives of Jews there.”

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It is understandable that Ethiopian Jews in Israel are justifiably angry and very disappointed.

But where are the shouts of protest of the general Israeli public? According to the Israeli financial newspaper Globes, the Treasury reported an NIS 1.6 billion surplus in 2016! Even were there no surplus there is a mandate to rescue these relatives of Israeli Jews of Ethiopian descent, but with a surplus a maneuver to procrastinate is unconscionable. Israel must fulfill its commitment without delay.

There is a role, however, for the Diaspora community to play as well. Those stranded in Ethiopia left their jobs and abandoned their homes to move to Gondar and Addis Ababa as the first steps in their aliya. They live in hovels. And they are hungry.

It has been reported that Ethiopia is currently in the grip of its worst drought in 50 years.

Food is available – but, as we can imagine, it is costly.

Teff is the staple food grain of Ethiopia. To provide enough teff to feed of family of four costs about $19 a month. This is money that is beyond the reach of these families waiting to come to Israel. Providing fruit and vegetables to young children in the religious schools and for those too young to attend would cost considerably less. But it has been calculated that it will require a commitment of thousands of dollars a month to sustain those stranded in Ethiopia.

Sharing the responsibility, Israeli and Diaspora Jews can help alleviate the pangs of hunger with their financial support.

The Jewish communities in Ethiopia have the structure to purchase and distribute food.

What they do not have is the money to purchase it. Are we prepared to ignore the mothers who weep because their children are weak from hunger? It is unlikely that any single foundation, synagogue, Jewish Federation, institution or individual will be able to shoulder this responsibility alone for the next five years. But that cannot be a reason to leave people to starve. We need to bond together in common cause. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry is prepared to work with others to make certain that the future Israeli community currently stranded in Ethiopia has the basic food to survive its ordeal. We pray that others will join this effort. The Diaspora community has a position of strength.

Israel is blessed with power. As Mordecai said to Esther, “And who knows, perhaps you have attained your position for just such a crisis.”

The writer is president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

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