A group of Wexner Israel Fellowship alumni recently accompanied the Mengistu family to Los Angeles, Washington and New York, on a visit aimed at raising awareness and gaining support for the release of their son, Avera, from his imprisonment by Hamas in Gaza. And there are many more of us alumni working on this cause in addition to those who went to the States. We are moved with compassion for a fellow Israeli and his family, and we are moved to action because of the mitzvah called pideon shvuyim (releasing captives) which the Talmud, in Bava Batra 8b, calls “the great mitzvah”.
Mengistu, a young man age 31, of Ethiopian descent, has been held hostage by Hamas for the past three years, during which time there has been no sign of life or information about his condition.
Avera and his family made Aliya to Israel in the beginning of the 90s as part of Operation Solomon and settled in Ashkelon. As with many families coming from Ethiopia, life was difficult for the Mengistu family. Avera’s emotional problems were compounded by the death of an older brother, and he was twice hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia. His mental situation continued to deteriorate and, a little over three years ago, Avera wandered over the border to Gaza and was captured by Hamas. His family has not been able to receive any information regarding his physical and mental condition and no organization, such as the Red Cross, which usually is allowed visits in such situations, has been permitted to visit him.
It is important to remember that Avera is not a soldier who was captured in a situation of war, but a mentally-disturbed individual who wandered inadvertently into Gaza.
The Mengistu family and the Wexner Alumni group are striving to raise awareness and solidarity in the Jewish world for this humanitarian cause: the release of Avera. The family and the Wexner community here in Israel strongly believe that spreading Avera’s tragic story and supporting joint efforts to bring him home is an important way to strengthen solidarity between the Jewish world and Israel’s community of Jews of Ethiopian descent.
The visit included:
- meetings with Jewish Federations of North America, AIPAC, the Jewish press and representatives of leading Jewish organizations at the JFNA General Assembly (GA) meeting in Los Angeles, November 12 – 14 — where the family also had a warm and strongly supportive meeting with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. At the GA plenary the Mengistu family was able to tell Avera’s story and to distribute brochures. Much of this was done with the assistance of JFNA in Israel and the US and the help of Wexner staff and alumni in the States.
- visits with national and local Jewish organizations and synagogues to foster consciousness, solidarity and participation in the struggle to free Avera Mengistu, including Mr. Malcolm Hoenlein of the President’s Conference, ADL, J-Street, IAC, JCRC, WJC and many more. The family has been much encouraged by the welcome and commitment to help by several local Jewish communities.
- meetings in Washington DC with members of the State Department and Congress, asking their help by raising the issue of Avera’s situation in appropriate Congressional Committees and requesting the American government to use its influence in the Arab world and the Palestinian Authority.
- meetings with White House, Congress and State Department representatives who will hopefully work towards raising public awareness and influence international humanitarian organizations to bring Avera home.
- meetings with the UN Secretary General aides, as well as other key UN leaders and heads of relevant delegations (e.g., the US representative to the UN, countries which contribute to the Palestinian Authority, members of the UN Security Council) who will raise this issue in relevant UN forums.
- meetings with leading journalists of Jewish and non-Jewish media.
But most of all, it has been the American Jewish community which has warmly embraced, encouraged and supported the Mengistu family, at meetings with Jewish national and community organizations, in synagogues, at community meetings and in their homes.
If you can help us Wexner Israel Fellowship alumni to help Avera further, please let us know.
Eli Bahar, an alum of the Wexner Israel Fellowship (Class 11), is currently working at the Israel Democracy Institute, as well as teaching courses in the Tel Aviv University (Faculty of Law) and practicing Law. Until his retirement in 2011, Eli was the Head of Legal Division in the Israel Security Agency (ISA). In this capacity, he dealt with legal aspects concerning security issues. He received a BA in Economics and Political Science, an LLB from Tel Aviv University and a MA in Social Science from Haifa University. Mr. Bahar also holds a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner Israel Fellow.
Brenda Morginstin, an alum of the Wexner Israel Fellowship (Class 4), was the Director of the Division for Service Development at Israel’s National Insurance Institute, where she also previously directed the Division of Research and Planning in Long-Term Benefits. In her previous position she was responsible for developing programs for promoting social integration, employment and rehabilitation services aimed at expanding opportunities for populations at risk, such as children and adults with disabilities, the elderly, children and families at risk. Currently, Brenda is a private consultant for social service development and management, especially for the elderly and disabled. Her MSW in Social Work research and administration was gained from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and her BA in English Literature from Brooklyn College. She has a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner Israel Fellow.