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The Plight of the Falashas

POLITICS

By Errol T. Louis

IN THE LAST seven years, a group of Jews has been tortured, imprisoned, and executed because of their religious beliefs. They have been forgotten by a silent world and ignored by their fellow Jews. The Falashas, the Black Jews of Ethiopia, face a perilously uncertain future.

Falasha means "exiles" in Amheric; the Falashas believe they are descendants of nobles close to the son of King Solomon. Separated from the rest of the Jews for centuries, the Falashas were real-firmed as true Jews by Israel's chief rabbis in 1975. It was then that the Falashas' troubles began.

A 1974 Marxist revolution deposed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who had more or less looked out for the Falashas. Declaring himself a direct descendant of Solomon. Selassie used the existence of Ethiopian Jews to legitimate his claim. But the Marxists who deposed him had no such interest in protecting the Falashas.

In 1975, the new regime, led by Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, began an armed conflict with Somalia and a bloody internal battle against rebellious property owners in Ethiopia's provinces: the rebels dreaded Mengistu's land reform program. Jews, historically the only minority group denied the right to own land, would have profited from the reform. The landed interests decided to destroy the Falashas rather than surrender their property. The landed Ethiopian resistance revived a superstitious anti-Semitism among the two million refugees it created; they blame the "evil eye" of the Falashas for the widespread misery. Violent attacks on the Jewshave resulted, and continue to this day.

MENGISTU'S GOVERNMENT has contributed to the carnage. As Ethiopian forces have gained control over rebellious provinces, they have promulgated "anti-Zionist" policies Hebrew teachers and religious leaders are arrested, imprisoned and tortured; their schools, closed. In The New York Times. Steven Bauman--an authority on the rampages--recently disclosed that one ex-prisoner, a religious leader accused of being a pro-Zionist ringleader, revealed to him the following incident.

He told them he had been tied by his hands and feet to a long stick, suspended by the stick and beaten with clubs. He said that he received no medical attention, and that he had been gagged and told to raise a finger when he was ready to confess...The man suffered from broken bones that were never set....He was released after a year and a half and walks with a limp.

The Gondar Province of Ethiopia is home for 85 percent of the Falashas, yet its governor has orchestrated atrocities against the Falashas without significant opposition. In 1975, Gondar contained 28,000 Ethiopian Jews. But refugees report that number has dwindlded because of murder, forced conversion, dispersal, and enslavement. A group of 13 American and Canadian Jews who visited Gondar Province in late 1981 report that fewer than 25,000 Falashas remain: another expert puts the number of survivors at less than 10,000 and shrinking.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International have consistently ignored the Falashas: ironically, so have other Jews, Israel explains away its inactivity because of its bizarre policy of "necessary" silence. In January 1979, the few Falashas living in Israel demonstrated against the secrecy surrounding all discussions of help for Ethiopian Jews. Later that year. Yigael Yadin, then Deputy Prime Minister, announced that secrecy would continue to be necessary to ensure a successful rescue of the Falashas Jewish pressure groups are still given that "rescue" excuse. Yet, only five were rescued between 1978 and 1980. And as of last October, the Jewish Agency--which handles immigration for Israel--did not have a single full-time official in Israel responsible for the Falasha situation.

For a while, Israel officially noticed the slaughter of Jews in Ethiopia. In 1979, the North American Jewish Student's Network sponsored a speaking tour for Zacharius Yona, an Ethiopian Jew. The tour, and the demonstration in Israel that same year, forced the Knesset in November to debate publicly the Falasha question for the first time. The legislators resolved that "the Government...should not keep silent but should...[help] our Jewish brothers from Ethiopia." Prime Minister Begin created committees to study possible rescue attempts, and for a brief while, progress seemed likely: during 1980, 665 Falashas were rescued. Within a year, however, apathy reappeared. Israeli diplomats and civil servants now again are discouraging public discussion of the Falasha question, and only 286 were rescued in the first nine months of 1981.

The handling of the Falasha issue raised a number of uncomfortable questions. Does outrage at anti-Semitism apply solely to American and European Jews? Why has The New York Times printed only five stories on Ethiopian Jews between 1975 and 1982, as opposed to more than 532 on Soviet Jews? Why does the extermination of thousands of Ethiopian Jews draw such an insignificant fraction of the money and public attention devoted to just one Soviet Jew? Until those questions disappear, a community will continue to be repressed and massacred--and ignored by an outside world that professes to care about human rights.

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