Portman avoids Falash Mura issue

Actress visits Ethiopia to learn about challenges olim from country face.

natalie portman 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
natalie portman 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Hollywood actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Israel and is known for her commitment to Jewish values, visited Ethiopia this week in order to gain a greater understanding of the trials and tribulations faced by Ethiopian immigrants as they adjust to life in Israel, The Jerusalem Post has learned. "Ethiopian olim are very close to her heart and she wanted to learn more about them," a source involved in organizing the trip told the Post Thursday. Her trip had no connection to the Falash Mura issue and she did not go to Rwanda, according to the source. Wild rumors surrounded the Star Wars star's initially secret visit to Africa, with some Israeli media claiming she was there to sympathize with the controversial plight of the remaining Falash Mura - Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted under duress to Christianity more than a century ago. The Israeli government says they are not eligible to make aliya. Others claimed she had been delayed in Ethiopia on her way to visit a new American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) project in Rwanda. Sources did confirm, however, that the visit had been planned many months ago to enhance the actress's philanthropic commitments to Israel and world Jewry. The first part of her trip included visits to projects for Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and then, in an attempt to enrich her experience, she was taken to Africa in order to understand the journey the immigrants take from the third world to modernity, said the source. Talk that her trip was being filmed for an episode of the popular talk show hosted by Oprah Winfrey was refuted. Among the places visited by Portman was the Israeli Embassy compound in Addis Ababa, where immigrants are prepped immediately before they arrive in Israel, and the formerly Jewish village of Ambover, near Gondar. Her trip was coordinated by the New York Jewish Federation, the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, said sources. Leaders of Ethiopia's Falash Mura community expressed disappointment that Portman did not acknowledge their current fight with the Israeli government, which is expected to end its aliya operations in Ethiopia this summer and has already recalled its Interior Ministry staff from Gondar. They pointed out that the actress had been scheduled to visit their aid compound in Gondar but that she cancelled at the last minute. Gete, head of the Falash Mura community in Gondar, told the Post by phone that he had met with the trip's organizers last Friday and arranged a three hour visit there for Portman on Monday. "It was supposed to include a visit to the feeding center, where we provide food aid to thousands of people each day, and to the Hebrew and Jewish education classes that we conduct for children and adults," said Zemene. "She was then supposed to attend afternoon prayers with the members of the community." On Monday morning, however, he was informed that Portman's visit had been cancelled and was given no reason for the sudden change. "Later in the day, I went with several community members to Portman's hotel in Gondar, but her assistant came out and told us to leave," said Zemene. "She said that Natalie would not see or even speak to us. It was very painful and we are very disappointed by her behavior." The trip organizers responded that the visit to the Gondar compound had never been scheduled.