As Falashmura Aliyah Winds Down, Jewish Groups Turn Their Attention to Other Parts of Ethiopia

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GONDAR, Ethiopia − Jewish Agency representatives are considering whether to leave a sign at the Jewish community school here, commemorating the donations of Jewish philanthropists that were used to build and maintain the structures that will be handed over to the Gondar municipality in a few weeks. Meanwhile, preparations to dismantle the compound that served the Falashmura community are going ahead. The synagogue’s Torah scroll will be returned to Israel, the kindergarten and the kitchens that once fed thousands of children and mothers will close, and the property will be returned to its local owners after a 15-year lease. All to remove any doubt that mass emigration to Israel is over.

If the new campaign launched by Israeli relatives of the Falashmura ‏(descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity under pressure‏) who have been refused entry into Israel fails, an era of activity focusing on Jewish Ethiopian ‏(Beta Israel‏) and Falashmura communities and their immigration will come to an end. But this won’t mean an end to the presence of Israeli and Jewish organizations in this big African nation.

“We must not send out a message that we have taken 80,000 Jews out of Ethiopia and now everyone left can just f--- off,” declares Dr. Rick Hodes, the medical director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia. Hodes has worked in this country for a quarter of a century, and although the clinic he heads in Gondar was set up specifically to serve the thousands of Ethiopian citizens waiting to emigrate to Israel, the JDC ‏(an international humanitarian organization‏) has for decades also been expanding its“nonsectarian” work in Ethiopia and other developing countries. Indeed, Hodes says he never saw his role as caring primarily for Jewish patients, and over the years his clinic has served as a base for various international medical programs. These have included delegations of Israeli eye specialists who come to Africa to carry out thousands of cataract removals and also to work in one of Hodes’ main areas of expertise: treatment of children with severe spinal deformities. His hope is that with the end of organized aliyah from Ethiopia, funds will be found to allow the clinic to continue operations for the benefit of the broader population in need of modern medicine.

JDC operates other programs in Ethiopia beyond its medical projects, including assisting the local governments in building schools ‏(20 have already been built around the country‏) and digging sustainable wells in rural areas. Hodes emphasizes the historical connection underlying his work: “Jews have lived in Ethiopia for thousands of years. The entire history of this country is based on the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. You can’t cut off this natural bond just like that.”

In addition to the motive of tikkun olam − literally, “repairing the world” − there is also a financial reason for the growing trend of Jewish-American organizations to undertake nonsectarian aid programs in developing countries such as Ethiopia: The young generation of Jewish philanthropists are less eager to donate to the same causes as their parents.

“Young donors say that there are enough Jewish oligarchs in Russia, so why do we have to give to welfare programs for the old Jews there,” says Hodes. “But they are interested in funding aid programs in places like Ethiopia and are happy to do so through a Jewish vehicle.”

Late Agency initiative

Late in the game, the Jewish Agency is also joining the tikkun olam trend and has started its own nonsectarian program. As its officials in Gondar began shutting down social welfare and educational operations serving the Falashmura, last year the Agency opened a volunteer center in town staffed with young Israelis and Diaspora Jews. This is the first Project Ten facility, one of 12 such centers planned − three in Israel and nine around the world. Two others subsequently opened in Kiryat Shmona, as well as in Hyderabad in southern India; next year two more are set to open in Mexico and Ghana. Each center has around 25 volunteers, who come for three-month stints, and five staff members. They work in local schools and orphanages, along with local NGOs working with street kids, and they also run programs helping single mothers set up tiny independent farms.

“We started in Gondar because it’s the one place in Africa with a Jewish presence,” says Nir Lahav, head of the Jewish Agency’s social activism unit. The plan is to set up a network of centers with 2,000 volunteers ‏(half of them Israelis‏), but Lahav admits that the pace is slow and that it’s particularly hard to enlist young volunteers from the Diaspora, who are in the middle of college or starting out in their careers. He also has to contend with skeptics within the Agency who believe that during a period of shrinking budgets, the organization should focus on its core missions of strengthening Jewish communities and encouraging aliyah and absorption of immigrants.

“This isn’t instead of working with Jews,” insists Lahav. “On the contrary, those who volunteer continue afterward to work within their [own] communities, and it connects young people from the Diaspora to their Jewish roots and to Israel. Working in the developing world is 21st-century Zionism.”

Supporters of nonsectarian work, in the Agency and other Jewish organizations, believe that Israel lags behind Western nations in formulating and financing a strategic plan of international aid ‏(see box‏).

“We [Israelis] think that what’s important is [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu making speeches at the United Nations, and don’t realize that the best way to represent Israel is through programs like these,” a senior operative with one of the organizations says bitterly.

However, while it gets little publicity, the International Cooperation Agency ‏(MASHAV‏) within the Foreign Ministry has been working for more than five years on aid programs in Ethiopia and invests NIS 3 million in them annually.

“We are setting up in Ethiopia, together with USAID, a network of 20 agricultural training centers,” says Ephraim Ben Matityahu, the director of programs at MASHAV, “and together with the German government we are working on irrigation solutions for arid regions.”

For the Foreign Ministry, this isn’t just tikkun olam, nor do the aid programs have a connection to the Falashmura emigration: Israel has diplomatic, financial and strategic interests in Ethiopia, which is undergoing major development and is becoming a major political and financial hub in the continent, with Addis Ababa as headquarters of the African Union. As a Christian nation, too, it serves ‏(together with Eritrea‏) as a buffer zone between Sudan and other African Muslim nations and the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea. According to foreign sources, Israel and Ethiopia also cooperate closely on security and intelligence matters. 

Meager investment abroad

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has set for its members a standard of 0.35 percent of GDP for investment in developing countries. Israel currently dedicates just 0.07 percent of its GDP for what the OECD calls Official Development Assistance, and this includes all the budgets for absorbing Ethiopian immigrants and refugees from around the world. The fact that Israel is spending only a fifth of the specified amount on aid means its government cannot take part in the international development forums of the OECD, policy-making or other major programs. Furthermore, in the absence of substantial funding, Israel cannot participate in large infrastructure-building projects in the developing world. Instead, it focuses its limited resources mainly on training programs that include hundreds of courses run by Israeli experts around the world and in Israel for 2,500 trainees each year, mainly in the fields of advanced agriculture, entrepreneurship and water and educational technology. The Foreign Ministry naturally blames the treasury for its unwillingness to increase the allocations for programs abroad.

The Jewish school at Gondar, in July. The end of immigration won't mean the end of a Jewish or Israeli presence in Ethiopia.Credit: Moshik Brin

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