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October 23, 2009

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PAGE 16A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 23, 2009 will By Uriel Heilman NEW YORK (JTA)--After being shut for more than a year. the gates of mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel may be swinging open again this time for some 9.000 people. In July, Israeli government representatives returned to Ethiopia to assess the eligibility for aliyah of ap- proximately 3,000 Ethio- pians who may be entitled to immigrate but had never filed petitions. Advocates had pressed Israel to expand its assessment to a much larger group of Ethiopians 8,700 people in all but Israel had demurred. Now, however, acampaign by advocates that stresses the health risks facing the 8,700 Ethiopians, along with the support of Israel's interior minister, EliyahuYishai, may throw open the aliyah gates for all of them. If that happens, mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel likely would continue through 2017. at a rate of 100 immigrants per month. officials say. The group at issue is com- prised of so-called Falash Mura--Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, but who now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. A major sign of change came last month when YishaL who became interior minister when Benjamin Netanyahu's government took office six months ago, sent a letter to a U.S. Jewish aid group saying there were "steps in place" to consider the aliyah eligibility of 5.700 Ethiopians in addition 1~o the 3.000 the ministry already was checking. The letter, sent to the American Jewish Joint Dis- tribution Committee. urged the JDC to reopen its medi- cal clinic in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. where the 8,700 people live. The JDC had shuttered tho~ clinic in July after those the Israeli government deemed eligible for aliyah had moved to Israel. At the same time. the North American Confer- ence on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ, an aid organization and the main advocacy group for Ethiopian aliyah, stepped up efforts portraying the 8,700 aliyah hopefuls in Gon- dar as at grave medical risk. NACOEJ took a prominent Israeli physician to Ethio- pia 1~o assess the medical condition of the Gondar community, whose members NACOEJ considers Jewish- but whose Jewish links re- main unverified by Israel. While the assessment did not include any physical exams, the physician, Dr. Arthur Eidelman, told JTA he saw "clear signs of malnutrition in children, particularly under age 6." Eidelman, formerly the chief of pediatrics at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, produced a report calling for the reopening of the JDC clinic. Once the JDC, which says it takes its cues from the Israeli government on Falash Mura-related issues, received Yishai's letter, it began taking steps to reopen the medical clinic in Gondar, JDC officials said. Now the organization says it needs $250,000 to operate the clinic. In the meantime, NACOEJ says children are dying of malnutrition. "Many children in the Jewish Community of Gon- dar, Ethiopia, have already become ill or died from hunger this year," said a fund-raising e-mail NACOEJ sent to its mailing list in mid-September, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The group has sent similar e-mails throughout the past decade, even when the JDC clinic in Gondar was open. During that time, JDC of- ficials maintained that ac- counts of children dying of malnutrition were untrue or unverified. But with the shuttering of JDC's clinic and the decline in food aid at NACOEJ- sponsored aid centers in Gondar--due to budget cuts from federation sponsors in North America, NACOEJ officials say--the health of the Gondar population has grown more precarious, ac- cording to NACOEJ. The group's director of operations, Orlee Guttman, told JTA that several children from the community had died in the last year from hunger, malaria and tuber- culosis. NACOEJ does not conduct medical assessments or perform autopsies; Guttman said it relics on parents to determine cause of death. In response to JTA's inqui- ries, NACOEJ disclosed the names of five toddlers it said had died over the past year. Four died of malaria and one, 2-year-old Benyam Derebie Abere, had "hunger" listed as cause of death, according to the organization. There appears to be little dispute that reopening the JDC clinic in Gondar for the 8.700 aliyah hopefuls would improve their ability to receive considerably bet- ter health care. What is in dispute is who they really are and whether they truly are linked to Ethiopian Jews. Many Israelis believe they are mostly Christian Ethio- pians deceptively claiming Jewish links and adopting Jewish observances in a bid to escape Africa's desper- ate poverty for the relative comfort of the Jewish state. "We are creating a hell of a job for ourselves because Uriel Heilman An Israeli Interior Ministry official cheeks the eligibility for aliyah of Ethiopians in Gondar, Ethiopia, in 2005. of political correctness or trying to be nice," Israel's previous interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, told The Jerusalem Post in a 2007 interview about the 8,700. Advocates say the people in Gondar are Jews who have been left behind by Israel. Ethiopian immigration long has vexed successive Israeli governments. On several occasions, Israel has committed to bringing in a finite number of im- migrants that they believed constituted all the remain- ing Ethiopians eligible for aliyah, only to be told once the number had been reached that thousands more had been left behind. Israel completed the most recent phase of mass Ethiopian aliyah in the summer of 2008. when the last of some 16,095 immigrants arrived under a 2003 decision by Ariel Sharon's government to bring those eli- gible froma 1999 Israeli census of possible Ethiopian olim. But in September 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Oimert asked the Interior Ministry to return to Ethiopia to check the eligibility for aliyah of those from the 1999 census who had never filed petitions a group said to comprise approximately 3.000 people. The Interior Ministry representatives left for Ethiopia this summer and are still there. Due to the difficulty of proving Jewish lineage among the Falash Mura, those who wish to make ali- yah must meet several condi- tions: They or their spouse must demonstrate Jewish maternal links at some point in their provenance; they must have had a relative in Israel file a petition on their behalf by July 31, 2009; they must be listed on the 1999 census; and they must be among the group in Gondar. Designed to limit the number of Ethiopians who qualify, the conditions also are more relaxed than those that apply to would-be im- migrants from elsewhere in the world, such as the United States or the former Soviet Union. While Americans or Russians would be disquali- fied for aliyah for being less than "one-quarter" Jewish or if their only Jewish grandpar- ent converted out of the faith, Ethiopians are not disquali- fied for ancestral conversion to Christianity as long as they can demonstrate ma- ternal links to a Jew. Ultimately, the battle over these 5,700 additional peo- ple an Interior Ministry list puts the total number, with the 3,000, at approximately 9,300 is part of a debate that has raged in Israel and among American Jews since the beginning of the aliyah of the Falash Mura over where to draw the line. The line has changed with nearly every Israeli govern- ment. Where. exactly, it is drawn under Benjamin Ne- tanyahu remains to be seen. D By Gil Shefler NEW YORK (JTA)--When the staff at Hummus Place hauled the oven into the kitchen of the Israeli-owned chain's flagship branch and switched it on. no one was quite sure it would work. After all, the baking equipment had been collect- ing dust in a storage room for five years. A few minutes later, the first of hundreds of piping- hot pitas began emerging from the oven, soft and moist on the inside and firm on the outside--just like they make them back in Israel. "It felt like the right mo- ment," Yigal Ashkenazi, a senior manager at the chain. said of Hummus Place's decision to start baking its own bread. "Business is booming. During peak hours there are lines outside all our branches." Hummus Place, which began life as a small res- taurant in East Greenwich Village in 2004, opened its fifth location in New York two months ago. Many other Israeli-owned food businesses in the United States are reporting similar successes offering the kind of fare found in the Old Country. Falafel Maoz. a fast food franchise started by an Is- raeli couple in Amsterdam nearly 30 years ago, opened its first U.S. store in Phila- delphia in 2004 and is now in the midst of a nationwide expansion. The company says it plans to have at least 15 stores across the country by next year. The apparent growing enthusiasm in the United States for Israeli food is by no means limited to hum- mus and falafel. In Philadelphia, chef Michael Solomonov offers a gourmet take on the tastes of his native Israel at Zahav restaurant. "There are so many dif- ferent cultural and gastro- nomic ideas that make up Israeli cuisine." Solomonov told JTA. "Our kebabs are Romanian or Bulgarian, the merguez sausage is Moroccan, we have chraime fish stew from North Africa and kubbeh dumpling soup from Iraq." Since opening last year, Zahav has received glowing reviews in the local press. Solomonov says he might open a second branch in another city. It's not just restaurants. Israeli-style and Israeli- manufactured foods are increasingly visible at U.S. supermarkets, especially in areas with large Jewish communities. "There's no question that Israeli foods have be- come more popular, largely because improvement in the packaging and more effective marketing," said Menachem Lubinsky, who runs the annual kosher food trade Kosherfest, which will take place the last week of October. "Sales of salads in the kosher market have "tripled over the past few years." Israeli companies export $115 millionworth of food to the United States annually, up from $30 million a decade ago, according to Lubinsky. Janna Gur, editor of the Israeli food magazine AI Hashulchan and author of "The Book of New Israeli Food," says American pal- ates have been won over by the nutritious value of Israeli food. "With the widespread problem of obesity in the U.S., many Americans are looking to eat more health- ily," Gur said. "Israeli food has more vegetables and less meat. We are the only people in the world that eats salad for breakfast." Israeli cuisine is a relative newcomer to the culinary world, a loose mix of dif- ferent foods Jewish immi- grants brought with them from the Diaspora combined with local fare Middle East- erners had been eating for centuries. Some Israeli-owned op- erations hoping to tap the mainstream U.S. food mar- ket choose not to highlight their Israeli credentials. Sabra, a food manufac- turer that makes packed hummus and salads and is jointly owned by the Israeli Strauss-Elite company and PepsiCo, recently launched a national ad campaign based on its "Mediterranean" ap- peal. Other food companies owned by Israelis also have expressed ambivalence over how much they ought to identify with their home- land. "We are a company which was set up by Israelis. but our emphasis is on vegetar- ian food," said Yair Marinov. a senior executive at Falafel Maoz and an Israel native. "We're kosher, but we have no direct connection to Israel or Israeli food." "We're competing, with McDonald's and Burger King," he said. "We plan opening more locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, L.A.. and I think we'll do especially well in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where there's a lot of health food consciousness." Ori Apple, the founder and owner of Hummus Place, says there's a balance when it comes to how strongly to identify Israeli roots. He says he's happy to acknowl- edge his product's ties to Israel but sees no need for overt patriotic displays. Though the restaurants' staff and management is predominantly Israeli, none of the Hummus Place branches play Israeli mu- sic, display flags or feature any other obvious Israeli symbols. "Most of our customers aren't Israeli and have no ideawhat the origin is of the food we have here." he said. "At the end of the day we're selling hummus, not Israel." Sometimes it takes time for U.S. consumers to ad- just to Israeli food--and pronunciation. "When I was at the opening of our branch in Boca Raton. Fla., people couldn't even pronounce our name fala- fal, falawel," Marinov recalls. Some in the Arab world have taken umbrage by Israel's adoption of Middle Eastern specialties, parr ticularly hummus, which has become something of a national dish in the Jewish state. In 2008, a Lebanese businessman went so far as to ask the European Union to grant exclusive naming rights for the term "hum- mus" to chickpea puree made in Lebanon. In the United States, Arab customers are among Hum- mus Place's regulars. "We had an Egyptian cus- tomer who would routinely ask for a plate of ful and hummus," Apple said. Ful " is the Arabic and Hebrew word for fava beans. "He said the ful was just like his mother's."