West ponders how to help oppressed Ethiopian Jews

Paradox has long enshrouded the Judaic element of Ethiopia's ancient civilization.

The Ethiopian Coptic Church, for instance, has often struck outsiders more for its Old Testament Judaic flavor than for its New Testament roots; for its claim to descend from the fabled union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; for its use of the Star of David as a symbol as much as the cross; for the way its former ruler Haile Selassie identified himself with the biblical ''Lion of the Tribe of Judah.''

Ethiopia's Jews also trace their roots back to ancient -Israel, to Jerusalemites who fled Babylonian invaders in 586 BC. Yet they are sometimes seen wearing traditional Ethiopian pins in the shape of a cross. Some have been known to adopt the walking stick traditionally used in Coptic Christian worship.

But to Ethiopian Jews themselves, the deeper paradox is the persecution they now face.

Of all religious groups in this beautiful and strategic region along Africa's Blue Nile, Jews were perhaps most supportive of Ethiopia's Marxist regime and its promise to bring land reform to the ancient feudal culture.

That promise held out hope for Jews long deprived of landholding rights by the dominant Coptic landlords.

But seven years after Emperor Selassie's demise, the promise still looks like a dream to Ethiopia's black Jews - Falashas, as they are called. Like so many apparently innocent religious groups and civilians, they have been caught up in the cross fire of vicious political purges, and arbitrary arrests and executions that have accompanied the revolution.

Most serious are reports coming out of the northern province of Gondar. About 85 percent of the estimated 30,000 Ethiopian Jews live there. According to Jews who have fled and Western travelers, the regional governor, Major Melaku, has systematically tried to demoralize and repress the Jews.

He is said to have closed down schools run by the Jews. Jewish children are also banned from public schools and government-approved international development programs. Jewish community leaders and teachers have been arrested, accused of being counterrevolutionaries, thrown into prison, and some of them subjected to debilitating torture. The movement of people between villages has been restricted. Thousands of Jews have tried (illegally) to flee the country to reach refugee camps outside.

What astonishes most observers is that the Gondar campaign has persisted long after the notorious ''Red Terror'' purges that ended in 1979. And it all appears to be going on without sanction from the central government in Addis Ababa.

Some concerned North Americans became so outraged earlier this year that they went to Ethiopia to see things for themselves.

Flying into the heart of the country, they journeyed to Falasha villages. They came away convinced that the repressive conditions should be made public and activism far bolder on behalf of the refugees. In recent weeks they have brought several escaped Falashas to America to drive that message home.

But for the Jewish and other humanitarian groups, it has raised one of the stickiest of human rights dilemmas:

How does the outside world support better conditions for human rights victims while being sure not to make things worse by increasing tensions or embarrassing repressive regimes?

Is it better to take the quiet approach, supporting low-profile diplomacy and the ongoing efforts of refugee agencies, hoping that, in time, things will gradually improve? Or is overt activism and international publicity the only way to make world opinion felt?

Meet Nahum ben Yosef, an Ethiopian torture victim: He, for one, favors the high-profile approach.

Last year at this time he was a fugitive in his own country, trudging through the wilderness of Ethiopia's northern highlands. Days before he had begun his journey, rumor had swept through his rural village that he would soon be arrested by Major Melaku's government security police. He was not about to wait passively for more prison and torture, as he had six months before.

This time he packed up a few meager supplies, and reluctantly left his family behind. Sleeping by day, pressing on by night, he slipped by Cuban soldiers at checkpoints on the Ethiopian border and finally made it to refugee and relief officials on the other side.

Four months later he was on a plane to Israel. And visiting Boston recently, he reflected on the seven months he spent in Ethiopian prisons for what he claims was no crime at all.

''They accused me of being a Zionist and a CIA agent,'' says the handsome, gentle black African. He speaks in the relatively fluent English he learned years ago from American Peace Corps volunteers then stationed in Ethiopia. (He declined to be photographed for fear of possible retributions against his family still in Ethiopia's Gondar Province. For the same reason, he also goes by a pseudonym.)

''I was tied up and beaten in the lower back with clubs and sticks, and on the soles of my feet with twisted cords of electrical wire. If you were suspected of more serious things you might get electrical shocks, but thanks to God I didn't have that.

''Four of our community leaders and teachers were held at the prison for a year and seven months for nothing. They were tortured physically, morally, and psychologically, then released. When I saw them later they were crippled both morally and physically. . . . Some people have been in these prisons for seven years for nothing at all.''

As Nahum sees it, the policies of Major Melaku are an extension of anti-Semitic tendencies that have long stigmatized Jews in Ethiopian society. Falashas deprived of land were forced to earn a living through blacksmithing and crafts. As their skills of invention grew, he says, so did popular superstitions that they had evil magical powers. (The name Falasha means ''newcomer'' or ''alien,'' and has a pejorative ring for a population with such ancient roots in Ethiopia.)

For six months after his own release, Nahum says, he tried to return to his normal work as a community teacher and leader back at his home village (the name of which he also declines to identify). But it soon became clear that the weeks of relative normality would not last long. He had to flee.

''The refugee camps outside Ethiopia are unbearably dirty,'' he adds.

In the four months he spent in them, he found that ''most of the almost 3,000 Falashas in them were illiterate and unable to communicate well with relief officials. Few had enough money to buy clean water. Few knew how to handle and wash foods offered in the camps.''

It all adds up, he says, to a sure formula for disease and despair.

Of the thousands of Falashas who have fled the country since 1974, an estimated 1,400 have been resettled in Israel. But over 2,500 are still thought to be living in the squalid camps.

When it comes to outside help, Nahum himself has no doubts that a high-profile, activist citizens' campaign is needed. He would like to see the refugees moved out of the camps more rapidly. He would have international pressure brought publicly to bear on Gondar authorities to stop the persecution within the province. Ultimately, he would like to see all Ethiopian Jews permitted to leave Ethiopia and emigrate to Israel.

In recent years, however, many Jewish and other humanitarin groups have not been so sure about the higher-profile approach. Early in the crisis, the B'nai B'rith International service organization preferred to work through the quieter channels of the United Nations and let the Israeli immigration agencies handle the matter at their own pace.

Other groups have felt that reports of Holocaust-like repression have been exaggerated. Overt outside activism, they worry, could jeoparadize prospects for improvement of conditions for Jews within Ethiopia.

Some reports reaching the American government and studies by the US Agency for International Development suggest the conditions of Ethiopian Jews have indeed improved in some regions, albeit not in Gondar. Land reform is thought to have benefited at least some Jews.

To add further to the delicacy of the problem, there is some evidence from US government sources that Major Melaku's crusade against Jews was inflamed in 1975 when he learned Israel had decided to permit citizenship for Ethiopian Jews who fled the country.

Nevertheless, the weight of opinion among Jewish and other concerned humanitarian groups appears to be shifting toward the higher-profile strategy.

For its part, the B'nai B'rith's International Council recently issued a public condemnation of the actions of Gondar politicians responsible for the clampdown on Jews. It appealed to the central government of Ethiopia to urge Major Melaku to stop the reign of terror, to open the country to visitors from the outside, and to permit reunification of Jewish families.

A volunteer organization called the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, which claims 6,000 contributors, is pulling out all stops on a new fund-raising drive to try to bring out the Falashas more quickly, and settle them either in Israel or other countries that will receive them.

''Things aren't getting any better within Gondar, and we just can't stand by and wait any longer while the suffering goes on,'' says Dr. Howard Lenhoff, a biologist at the Irvine branch of the University of California.

''Our delay is just dragging out the Falashas' demise. Publicity does help. Countries do respond to public opinion. After all, Ethiopia's biggest business is selling coffee to the United States.

''So we intend to hire people to do resettlement work. We're trying to arrange visas for the Falashas to go to Israel or to any country where we can get them resettled. What happens then depends on what American and other agencies will do to make life easier for the Falashas. But I think once people realize the facts, they will want to help.''

Meanwhile, the families of refugees like Nahum ben Yosef remain in Ethiopia. And Nahum himself still waits anxiously for a time when the political ice will thaw enough to allow him to be reunited with his wife and children.

Only time will tell if the rising pressure of public outrage and activism is the answer his people have been seeking.

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