NEW YORK — The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is preparing to return to Ethiopia, just four months after it virtually shut down its operations in the African nation at the request of the Israeli government.
Reports of death, illness and impoverished conditions among the thousands of Ethiopians who have flooded into the capital city of Addis Ababa and Gondar City prompted the move by the relief agency.
"We hope that this matter can be brought to an early resolution," Michael Schneider, JDC's executive director, told national Jewish organizational leaders in New York, "so that the Falash Mura population can be clear as to their future and begin to plan accordingly."
JDC's decision underscores what many American Jews are beginning to see as the need for expeditious action regarding the Falash Mura, who consider themselves Jewish and want to immigrate to Israel, but are not recognized as Jews by Israel.
The JDC wants Israel to step up its work screening the thousands of aliyah applicants, who currently live in shacks in Addis Ababa and Gondar City, where the JDC operated and where Israel has its government offices.
But Schneider stresses that the JDC is determined to remain neutral on the question of religious status, emphasizing that it "is not responsible for deciding who should go to Israel."
Just as it closed its operations on July 1 at Israel's request, the JDC will not implement its emergency plan without discussing it with Israeli officials later this month.
Further pressure is expected at the General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America, where a protest by thousands of Ethiopian Jews is planned to coincide with the arrival in Jerusalem of the 2,600 American Jews who will participate in this year's annual meeting, which will take place from Nov. 16 to 19.
Since July some 15,000 Falash Mura have uprooted themselves from their agrarian communities and relocated to the larger towns, transforming themselves into what the JDC describes as "a population of urban slum dwellers."
A grassroots letter-writing campaign and reports of the refugees' living in squalor have put the JDC in "a kind of nutcracker," Schneider said, with pressure mounting from the American Jewish community to return to Ethiopia and pressure from Israel to stay out.
"Regardless as to how the current situation has arisen, JDC, as a humanitarian organization, cannot ignore the plight of hungry children," Schneider told a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
JDC says it is prepared to provide blankets and clothing and supplemental food, medical screening for the children in the shanty towns and technical assistance to the community leaders to help them establish medical clinics.
But an advocate for the Falash Mura says the commitment falls short of the need.
"People are dying. We need to save the people," said Avraham Neguise, director of the Israel-based South Wing to Zion, which recently reported that 59 people have died of disease and malnutrition this summer in the shanty towns.
Neguise wants JDC to restore housing allowances and stipends and to reopen an employment program. The refugees currently subsist largely on funds sent by relatives in Israel.
"The facilities exist there: the clinic and all the necessary expertise," Neguise said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "They have the expertise."
JDC and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a U.S.-based advocacy group, provided health care, education, food services and vocational training to roughly 3,000 Falash Mura left behind after the mass 1991 exodus of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon. Most of this group was finally granted entry into the Jewish state after seven years of deliberation by Israel.
A separate population of about 2,500 Ethiopian Jews from the Kwara region has been recognized by Israel — and plans for their immigration are currently under way. By all accounts, however, the processing of the Kwara Jews is advancing at a snail's pace.
Most of the current Falash Mura refugees claim relatives in Israel and say they want to be reunited with their families. Many say they were persecuted as Jews or feared anti-Semitic persecution.
Responding to those claims, the North American Conference chose to continue its operations in Ethiopia beyond the July deadline agreed to with Israel. JDC sent two investigative teams, which failed to find conclusive evidence of widespread persecution.
Israel insists that thousands of recent arrivals in Addis Ababa and Gondar are ineligible for immigration under family reunification because their relatives were admitted under the Law of Entry, a special humanitarian application of immigration law, rather than the Law of Return, which requires immigrants to have at least one Jewish grandparent.
The Law of Entry was used "because those people arrived during Operation Solomon in 1991 under the belief that they would be going to Israel," said Avi Granot, Israel's former ambassador to Ethiopia and the current minister for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
He insisted that the policy pertained only to those 4,000 individuals, "not to a general community that refers to itself as Falash Mura."
Advocates counter that the Falash Mura are "returning to Judaism" with the guidance of rabbis and religious instruction. The JDC contends that refugees may have been encouraged to uproot themselves by relatives in Israel and by advocacy groups hoping to create what Schneider called "a hot situation to blackmail Israel and the JDC."
Israel's position has been that allowing the current group of refugees on the basis of family reunification would open up a never-ending flow of immigrants aspiring for a better life.
Israeli officials say applicants will be considered on a case-by-case basis. "It has to be handled with a surgeon's scalpel and not a hatchet," Brown said.