The Last Jews of Ethiopia (July 2,
by Naomi Ragen
Ive always had a special love for my brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. I
suppose it began the day I saw a woman who had given birth en route get off the plane
during Operation Solomon. This brought to mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
gather them from the uttermost ends of the earth
travaileth with child
a great company shall return hither."
And so, when a lovely young Ethiopian girl approached me with a handout during
the Jewish Agencys General Assembly, I took it gladly and read it with care.
The handout - prepared by a group calling itself "The South Wing to
Zion"- was nothing less than shocking. Ethiopian Jews being left behind in Jewish
Agency transit camps to die of disease and malnutrition and anti-Semitic attacks because
of the racism of white Jewish officials who preferred white, half-Jewish Russians, to
To say I was outraged would be an understatement. And so, I began to
My first step was a meeting with the director of The South Wing to Zion, Mr.
Avraham Neguise. When I turned up at the address he gave me, there was no sign on the
door. It seemed boarded up. I called Mr. Neguise, who apologized for being late, and asked
me to wait. I waited, watching maruading cats eating leftovers amid a collection of old
He turned out to be a stocky, personable, middle-aged man wearing an English
riding cap. As the door to the office creaked open, and we sat down inside, he again
reiterated much of what Id read. He handed me lists with thousands of names,
allegedly of people left behind to rot in camps who were immediate relatives of Ethiopian
immigrants in Israel. His theory about the refusal of Israeli immigration authorities and
organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee to aid these suffering Ethiopian Jews
was clear: racism. The Ministry of Absorption was in the hands of Russians, who looked out
for their own. The Israeli government didnt like blacks, and so it backed them up.
The JDC was an arm of the Israeli establishment. Asked about his own background, he seemed
uneasy. Hed made Aliyah from Ethiopia. He was a social worker, he said.
That same evening, I called the JDC in New York to confront them with their
calumny. To my surprise, rather than being defensive and hostile, JDC officials were
relieved, even anxious, to discuss this subject with me. I went on to read official Jewish
Agency documents, protocols of government meetings. I followed up with a long session with
Ms. R., a young, religious, Israeli-born woman who works for the Organization for
Ethiopian Jewry and speaks Amharit, who spent a year in Ethiopia investigating the
situation first-hand. From all of these things, quite a different picture emerged. In
fact, the exact opposite of Mr. Neguises allegations.
Some background. In 1991, the Israeli government brought 14,700 Ethiopian Jews
to Israel during Operation Solomon. At that time, 1,800 more were left behind because
their families had converted to Christianity. They became known as Felas Mura.
The Israeli government appointed the Tzaban Committee to decide on the
eligibility of these people. In the meantime, thousands of additional people flooded the
refugee camps in Addis Abba. By 1997, 5,200 people from the Felas Mura were granted Alyiah
permits by the Tzaban committee on the basis of family reunification, some of them
practicing Christians. They too arrived in Israel.
In July 1997 Rabbi Menachem Waldman and representatives of The South Wing to
Zion built a mikve in Addis Ababa, which the Rabbi used to perform conversion ceremonies
on 500 women. Subsequently, these women and their families were included in a list of
3,623 people Rabbi Waldman submitted to Natan Sharansky. Rabbi Waldman agreed to close the
complex when these people, and another 551 from the villages, would be allowed into
Israel. Mr. Sharansky agreed, mostly on humanitarian grounds, since it was clear many of
these people were not really Jewish in any sense, and thus not eligible for immigration
under the Law of Return. It was agreed that humanitarian assistance groups like NAACOEJ
and the JDC would close down their operations when the last of these people were brought
These immigrants reached Israel in July, 1998.
All of a sudden, in August, 1998, these camps and ones in Gondar suddenly filled
up again. Numbers ran into the thousands. Suddenly, NACOEJ and The South Wing to Zion,
were talking about new lists with thousands of new names.
Ms.R told me that there is very bad blood between the real Ethiopian Jewish
community and the Felas Mura, who are considered dangerous and traitors to the Jewish
community, despite close family ties. In fact, Ms. R refused to let me use her name for
this article because "Neguise's thugs might burn my house down." The sudden
desire of Felas Mura to convert and move to Israel must be looked at carefully. Ethiopians
have a gross national income of $127 a year. It is a country whose health, education and
employment opportunities suffer serious problems. Mr. Neguise himself, who was a Christian
pastor not too long ago according to a number of sources, has been demanding huge sums of
financial aide from the JDC for the people on his "lists" as a condition to
stopping his worldwide propoganda campaign which depicts the JDC as abandoning suffering
Jews to disease and starvation in Ethiopia.
Ms. R also met with Rabbi Waldman in Ethiopia, confronting him with evidence of
people eating pork in local restaurants, who also wore a tallis to his Sabbath services.
Rabbi Waldman didnt seem troubled by this, insisting that they were all sincere
Jews, longing to be in Israel. What broke her heart most, she said, was that the aliyah of
the Jews of Quara, a nothern region in Ethiopia, with whom she spent much time and whose
authentic Jewishness is not questioned by anyone, is being delayed because of the present
battles to bring over the Felas Mura.
I was happy to learn that some of the Jews of Quara have already joined us.
Lets hope the truth comes to light, and the rest join us soon.