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Black Jewish Lives matter too: COVID-19 and Ethiopian Jewry

14,000 Beta Israel await aliyah in a poverty-stricken country where millions are expected to contract the virus. Israel's silence is deafening
Soap distribution by SSEJ in Gondar. (courtesy)
Soap distribution by SSEJ in Gondar. (courtesy)

A survey released by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that the majority of Israeli Jews would be willing to send assistance to Jewish communities struggling from the coronavirus.

A noble sentiment ignored by an ignoble government.

The 14,000 Beta Israel awaiting aliyah, some for over 20 years, have not received any assistance from the State of Israel and none is on the horizon. The Ethiopian government believes that somewhere between 13 million to 27 million Ethiopians will contract the disease. On May 4th, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health announced that they expect COVID-19, after a slow start, to reach its peak sometime between mid-June and July 1. The Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar are in danger, but no one in the Israeli government cares.

Over half of those waiting are maternally linked to the Jewish people and thus, according to Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, and Rav Shlomo Amar, they are Jews currently (in the words of Rav Amar: “Yehudim gemurim le’lo safek”). The balance have been leading religious lives for many years and are already in the process of conversion according to the strictest standards of halakhah.

Ethiopian Jews are ill prepared to resist the onslaught of this disease. Ethiopia has only 0.3 hospital beds per thousand people. There are only 221 operable ventilators available for COVID-19 treatment in a country of 112 million people. ICU beds are a rare commodity.

Health precautions that we take for granted in Israel and the United States are impossible dreams in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy states that, in Ethiopia, “Even taking such common-sense precautions as washing hands is often an unaffordable luxury to the half of the population who lack access to clean water. Even seemingly costless social distancing is hard to implement.” Of course, it’s hard to implement. Up to eight Jews live in a single room hovel without plumbing. They cannot afford soap.

Where is the State of Israel which has unconscionably delayed the aliyah of some of these Jews for over 20 years? Over 70 percent of the members of the Jewish community have first-degree relatives in Israel. Leading rabbis of the religious Zionist community in Israel (e.g., Rav Ya’acov Medan, Rav Avi Gisser, Rav David Stav, Rav Re’em HaCohen, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Shai Piron) and kessim have pleaded with Prime Minister Netanyahu to expedite the aliyah of these Jews, to take them out of harm’s way.

The silence is deafening. No aliyah; no life-saving help regardless of the will of the Israeli public. China sends 15 doctors to help Ethiopia; Israel sends no one. We can only hope that the new Minister of Immigration and Absorption, Penina Tamana Shato, and the new Health Minister. Yuli Edelstein, will take positive action.

Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) has responded in an effort to mitigate the anticipated death toll by providing 70 tons of food, 15 tons of soap, clean water, thousands of H95 and surgical masks and training and deploying 35 health care facilitators, etc. But SSEJ’s resources are too limited to cope adequately with the enormous challenge of coping with this terrible disease. Its resources are limited. And Israel alone is not to blame. In the United States, Jewish Federations of North America has not, thus far, provided any help. Astoundingly, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helps non-Jews in Ethiopia, but does not help the Jewish community.

Fortunately, the Jewish Agency, under the compassionate leadership of Isaac Herzog, has provided SSEJ with financial assistance along with generous donations from the Mandel Foundation and NACOEJ. Keren HaYesod is attempting to raise funds from its donors. The International Christian Assembly of Jerusalem continues to support SSEJ’s programs for malnourished children. But these contributions, though vital, are nowhere near enough.

The right answer of course is for Israel to bring the Jews awaiting aliyah to Israel as soon as possible. But until that happens, Israel must respond to the problem it has created by responding to the will of its citizens and to its moral imperative to save Jewish lives, lo ta’amod al dam re’echah — do not stand idly by. This problem would not exist if Israel had fulfilled its obligations under Israeli and Jewish law by reuniting these desperate Jewish refugees with their families. Until then it should — no, it must — provide assistance to mitigate the death toll among these desperate refugees until they are finally brought home to the Jewish homeland.

About the Author
Joseph Feit, an attorney, is currently chairman of SSEJ and a past president of NACOEJ. He is a past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and has been active on issues relating to Ethiopian Jewry for three decades. Feit has received awards from the Knesset, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar for his work on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
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