Commentary Magazine


Operation Moses

“I rejoice: there are white Jews too!” A This exclamation came from the mouth of one of the newly arrived Jews from Ethiopia in his first day at Israel’s national absorption center for his people in the seaside town of Ashkelon. However ironic the remark may have seemed to those who read it in Israel’s newspapers on January 4 of this year, it had not a trace of intended irony in it, for this man, like nearly all of his ancestors and a large majority of his contemporaries, believed that the Beta-Yisrael, called by their Ethiopian countrymen Falashas (the pejorative Amharic word for stranger), were the only Jews in the world. His exclamation of joy was followed by one of apprehension over the way he and the thousands of his brothers and sisters just rescued from Ethiopia’s chaos and famine would be treated by their exotic white co-religionists: “I am fearful about how they will receive us.”

If this new immigrant had been speaking exclusively on the basis of what he might have heard about his people’s past relations with white Jews, his fears would have been justified. By the 19th century, when the Beta-Yisrael had already been reduced, by mass executions and enslavement, from a powerful tribe of one million to a vulnerable remnant of 200,000, they had become a special target of Christian warfare, in the form of Protestant missionary invasions supported by the emperor of Ethiopia. Typically the missionaries would be converted Jews who represented themselves to the Beta-Yisrael as “white Falashas.” Probably the most intrepid of these was Henry Stern, a German-Jewish convert who had himself been ordained by the Prussian-Jewish apostate Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Michael Solomon Alexander. His evangelizing bore unintended fruit in 1862 when the Ethiopian Jews fled en masse from the missionaries in what they supposed to be the direction of Jerusalem. This attempt to reenact the story of the Exodus led to disaster, with many dying of hunger and malaria. Thus it is not by accident that the Beta-Yisrael celebrate Passover with unique immediacy and with special understanding of the biblical injunction to every Jew that he view the story of enslavement and rescue as his own.

European Jewry became aware of the Beta-Yisrael only as a result of the publicity attaching to the efforts of the Church Militant in Ethiopia. In 1868 Joseph Halévy, a Turkish-born French-Jewish linguist, was sent by the Alliance Israélite Universelle to assess the situation of the Beta-Yisrael. He made the unhappy mistake of introducing himself, as the missionaries had done, as a “white Falasha,” and got the deserved incredulous response. Skepticism and suspicion were allayed only when Halévy persuaded the Beta-Yisrael that the people Israel still lived and flourished outside of Ethiopia, that Jerusalem was a living reality for modern Jews, and that its Jewish inhabitants were indeed white.

Halévy was less successful in persuading his European sponsors that the Ethiopian Falashas were a living Jewish reality, and that they needed and deserved help. Although he brought back with him an Ethiopian siddur written in Ge’ez (ancient Ethiopic) and two young Ethiopian Jews as living witnesses, the Alliance refused to publish his report, “lost” his manuscript in its office files, and even alleged that the two youths he had brought with him were nothing more than slaves whom he had bought in the market of Massuah.

Halévy later succeeded in inspiring one of his students at the Sorbonne, the Orthodox Jew Jacques Faitlovitch (originally from Lodz), to devote his life to understanding, preserving, and rescuing the Beta-Yisrael and their distinctive Jewish culture.1 Faitlovitch too had to struggle not only against Christian missionaries but against Jews, including some rabbis, who were only too pleased to turn the Falashas over to the evangelists. One such rabbi, Haim Nahum, sent by the Alliance to check Faitlovitch’s claims, insisted that the Beta-Yisrael were not “of Jewish blood,” were “happy” where they were, and were unequal to the refinements of modern Judaism. He also praised the Christian missionaries for their work.

From the vantage point of the Ethiopian Jews, it must have seemed that Rabbi Nahum found his continuators among leading politicians of Israel during the first three decades of the state’s existence. But then the Ethiopian Jews were not and are not ideally situated to recognize that for a state like Israel there are such things as impossibilities in this world. Whether Labor party politicians viewed the Beta-Yisrael as immigrants who might prove uniquely difficult to absorb or feared that involvement on behalf of Ethiopian Jews would harm Israel’s relations with Haile Selassie (whose name, it seems relevant to recall, means “Holy Trinity”), it is difficult to say. Whatever the reasons, many years passed without a single emissary being sent to this substantial community of Jews eager to come and in danger of physical extinction.

In his book on The Lost Jews,2 Louis Rapoport singles out for blame a number of architects of Israel’s African-assistance program. Golda Meir, for example, was fond of likening the African experience—of oppression, discrimination, enslavement, and murder—to the Jewish historical experience. But her attachment to the metaphorical Jews of Africa often seemed to be matched by her caution about involvement in the fate of the real ones, whom she never mentioned publicly. One of her party colleagues, the late Yisrael Yeshayahu, former speaker of the Knesset, returned from his visit to Ethiopia convinced that the best solution for the Ethiopian Jews was—to become Christians. This would make the Ethiopian government “happy” and would entitle the Beta-Yisrael to an autonomous region.

Until the election of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister in 1977, there were only about 200 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and no government minister had ever consented to meet with a representative of the group. Begin, fortified both by personal conviction and by the 1975 ruling of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that the Beta-Yisrael were indeed Jews, members of the lost tribe of Dan, reversed the policy of his predecessors and initiated an active program to help and to bring them to Zion. But in February 1978 Moshe Dayan (whether inadvertently or by design) destroyed the immigration program by telling the press that Israel was supplying arms to Ethiopia. In 1980 Begin intensified what came to be called Operation Moses as the civil war in Ethiopia began to take a heavy toll of lives in the northern provinces of Gondar and Tygre where most of the Ethiopian Jews lived.

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Official secrecy about Israel’s program to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews and bring them from famine-ravaged Ethiopia to the homeland obtained until January 2 of this year, when Yehuda Dominitz, Director-General of the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency, told a newspaper that “a majority” of the Ethiopian Jews were now in Israel. On January 3, the government reluctantly acknowledged that “more than 10,000” of the Beta-Yisrael had been brought to Israel during the last few years. (Other estimates are that 12,000 to 15,000 have come since 1980, and 6,000 of these in the last two months of 1984.) Although Israel’s program of rescue had been an open secret in certain circles before January, and Arye Dulzin, Jewish Agency Executive Chairman, had all but revealed it in a statement to the press in early December, the American and Israeli press had in general showed rare and admirable self-restraint in withholding the story, and—as it turned out—for good reason. As soon as Dominitz and then Shimon Peres himself acknowledged the truth of the rumors, Operation Moses was stopped—by an embarrassed Sudanese government. (Dominitz was suspended from his duties in the Immigration Department.)

Up until January 5, the Ethiopian Jews had been going by foot to Sudanese refugee camps at Gedaref, just across the Ethiopian border, whence they were trucked to Khartoum, where they boarded planes to Brussels and then were flown to Israel. Although the Sudan denied any role in the operation, a spokesman for the Belgian charter airline that had ferried the Jews to Brussels announced that it was halting its participation in the airlift because of pressures coming from the Sudan. According to the Jewish Agency, the last planeload of immigrants arrived on January 5. At that date, at least 4,000 Jews were thought to remain in Sudanese camps, and several thousand more in Ethiopia itself.

The Ethiopian Jews knew that one-eighth to one-tenth of their community had already lost their lives on the trek to Israel. To this knowledge was now added the bitter news that thousands more of their relatives and friends would be stranded in the Sudan and Ethiopia. Anger was felt by many of the new immigrants toward officials and journalists. Eyewitnesses described one group in Ashkelon, when 120 reporters and photographers descended on their absorption center, fleeing to their rooms “as if from an approaching earthquake,” leaving behind a spokesman who said: “Israel is making publicity for itself, but at whose expense? At ours.”

Yet even among families torn asunder during Operation Moses, this was not the dominant reaction. For the Ethiopian Jews understood quickly that the “white Falashas” who had saved them from hunger and death had brought them not out of self-interest but out of brotherly love. Because the Ethiopians’ knowledge of the land of Israel derives from the Bible rather than from the world press, they came expecting a land flowing with milk and honey—and their expectations have been fulfilled. Upon them has been lavished the food so lacking in Ethiopia that Israeli doctors were shocked to see Ethiopian patients hiding slices of bread under their bed-sheets for fear that someone would steal it. They have also received in abundance the milk of kindness and the sweetness of fellowship. Rarely has there been such an outpouring of love and sympathy in Israel as has greeted these immigrants. They are immigrants, we must remember, the great majority of whom arrived not only with black skins but with bare feet, with bodies covered only in rags, emaciated, undernourished, and in many instances afflicted with diseases like typhus and malaria.

To outward view these immigrants looked more resistant to integration or “absorption” (the official term in Israel) than any of their predecessors since the founding of the state. Apart from the small number who came from urban, middle-class backgrounds, they would have to be taught to wear shoes, to use knives and forks and toilets, to take medicines, and to understand that electrical wires are not worms, that gas can be dangerous, and that you cannot remove food from grocery stores without giving money in exchange. Having been rescued from Ethiopia’s Marxists and Christians and Muslims and famine, they would also have to be rescued from trauma. Virtually every report on the new immigrants has remarked on their preternatural silence, a silence that bespeaks the shock of people transplanted from one planet to another.

None of these obstacles has prevented the people of Israel from taking the Beta-Yisrael to their collective heart. Nearly everywhere in the country the reaction to these black immigrants has been: “Thou art bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, one God made us.” Doctors and social workers and even Jewish Agency bureaucrats have been efficient, generous, and tactful in dealing with this largest wave of immigrants since the massive influx of Soviet Jews in the 1970’s. Thus, a group of 200 parentless children, who a few days earlier had been without home, without hope, without help, arrives in Ashkelon, to be housed in a medical center that has been transformed into an absorption center. The menu for their first meal, which must take into account both their malnutrition and their unfamiliarity with “Western” food, is prescribed by doctors. Each child is looked after by workers from the department of aliyah (immigration) and klitah (absorption). An Amharic-speaking volunteer presides as social workers show the children by hand motions how to cut a potato and eat an egg. The children remain in Ashkelon for just two days, during which time they are washed, clothed, examined by doctors, and, depending on their condition, sent either to hospitals or to absorption centers all over the country.

Nearly everywhere there is good will and generosity toward the new immigrants. In Nahariya, for example, residents carry their used finery to the 600 Beta-Yisrael who have been lodged in local hotels, and soon the immigrants who arrived in rags stroll the street of this “yekke” (German-Jewish) resort town in a queer melange of Adidas and Pierre Cardin. At the Israel Broadcasting Authority, efforts are under way to start radio programs in Amharic. Calls for black dolls go out to the United States, and are promptly answered. Schools begin teaching Israeli children about the history and customs of Ethiopian Jews. Snow is brought in from Mt. Hermon for the amusement of children who have never seen any. Every wedding among the immigrants, every baby born to them, every diploma granted to one of their college graduates, is greeted by all Israel as a communal triumph.

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It is worth remembering that the welcome accorded by the people of Israel to the Ethiopian Jews is not the universal practice of mankind with respect to distressed immigrants, and particularly penniless, starving black immigrants. It is, of course, true that from its inception one raison d’être of the state was to be a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution. It is also true that Israel’s very existence is predicated on continuing and increasing immigration. Nevertheless, a merely rational observer of Israeli life might well have predicted a very different and much icier reception for the Ethiopians at this particular point in the nation’s history. Israel has been a country seared by war, a country that every night has turned with sick dread to the television screen to see the burials of soldiers, mostly very young, killed not in purposeful battle but in retreat from a conflict widely viewed as one of the greatest misfortunes since the founding of the state. It is a country beset by grave economic difficulties, including rampant inflation, severe shortage of housing for young couples, a ruined currency, and rapidly increasing unemployment. These are not as a rule the circumstances that conduce to the warm reception of thousands of destitute new immigrants, who will need not only Hebrew, but housing and jobs. At a time when all budgets, including the crucial one for defense, are being cut, the Israeli government has been spending hundreds of millions of unbudgeted dollars on the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants.

Why have the people of Israel, lately so often sermonized for their lack of ethical idealism, opened their hearts and their purses to the Jews of Ethiopia? Why, for example, does the Moroccan community of Jews in Israel, which has a history of bitterness over its own unsuccessful absorption in the early 1950’s, which continues to claim that its members are discriminated against by Ashkenazi-dominated institutions, and which is now disproportionately harmed by spreading unemployment in development towns, go out of its way, at its annual Mimouna3 festivities, to extend a special hand of welcome to the Ethiopian Jews and give them a central role in the official celebration in Jerusalem?

Part of the answer, to be sure, has to do with the intrinsic qualities of the immigrants themselves. Those who have worked with the Beta-Yisrael invariably speak with admiration of their gracious manners, filial devotion, and elementary decency. Teachers at the absorption centers have expressed amazement at a dedication and devotion “not of this world,” have spoken of students of Hebrew at their desks half an hour before class in hopes the teacher will arrive early, and of children who are found poring over their books until midnight in dormitories where the lights are turned out at ten. Uri Gordon, head of Youth Aliyah, has even predicted that the Ethiopian Jews will themselves prove to be the rescuers of those who have rescued them, that they will raise Israelis from the depression in which they are sunk and inject new life into the Zionist enterprise.

But beyond this, many Israelis seem to have sensed that they share with these outcast people something more than common human status, namely, a common history and common hopes and aspirations. The photographs of joyous family reunions, of grievous family separations, above all of orphaned children, have brought to the mind’s eye of countless Israelis the pictures of European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The overriding wish of the Ethiopian Jews has been the same as that of the remnants of European Jewry after World War II: to reach Israel. Israelis with a longer historical memory have also recognized the similarity between the religious persecution of the ancient Jewish community of Ethiopia and that of ancient (if not equally ancient) Jewish communities of Eastern Europe by Christian establishments eternally fearful of a primal Jewish taint.4 Finally, Israelis—and they are still the vast majority of the population—for whom the Hebrew Bible has a unique resonance cannot but feel that the great themes of the story of Joseph and his brothers, of Jacob and his sons, are being reenacted before their eyes. The brotherhood between Israeli and Ethiopian Jews is reaffirming itself, despite decades of betrayal or neglect; and among the Beta-Yisrael the ties that bind the souls of sons and fathers have showed their magical capacity to survive unspeakable suffering and shattering upheaval.

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It must be stressed that Israel’s sense of a bond of unity between itself and the Jews of Ethiopia is national and religious, not ethnic. The Ethiopian Jews do not look or eat or dress or dance or talk or sing like any of the major ethnic groups of Israel. But they observe the Torah, and the phenomenon of their ready acceptance by the people of Israel suggests that in this allegedly secular country Jewish religion is after all a principle of unity that is ultimately far stronger than the centrifugal forces nourished by the advocates of ethnicity. (Israel’s only ethnic political party, the Moroccan Tami group, virtually collapsed in the last national election.)

Ironically, the only major group in Israel that finds ethnicity more important than religion in estimating the Jewishness of the Ethiopian Jews is the Chief Rabbinate and its followers. The current dual occupants of this office, whose very authority is defined by ethnic boundaries, are the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu. They have ruled that the Ethiopian Jews are not “full” Jews because their marriage ceremonies were not valid, or because their divorce proceedings were improper, or because they received converts who were not converted according to halakhah (Jewish religious law), or because they had customs “strange to the spirit of Judaism.” Seemingly just as arbitrary have been the Chief Rabbinate’s conditions for the Ethiopians’ conversion: one week it is ritual immersion, then it is symbolic circumcision, then a vow of loyalty to Torah, and various combinations of the three. Some of the more zealous acolytes of the chief rabbis have even prevented the Beta-Yisrael from praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Lubavitch movement, well-known for the lax and forgiving standards it applies to returnees to Judaism in the United States and Europe, has refused to accept any more Ethiopian children in its schools and is “checking the Jewish status” of those already enrolled.

There is a short and ready condemnation of the Chief Rabbinate’s stand as arising from resentment at a Jewish tradition that has developed without benefit of the Oral Law and therefore without benefit of rabbis; but this is inadequate. So too is the labeling of that stand (by Israel’s most aggressive anti-clerical parliamentarian, Shulamit Aloni) as “racism.” Rabbinical resistance to acceptance of the Beta-Yisrael as Jews is essentially, if not exclusively, modern. Another Chief Rabbi, David ben Solomon Ibn Avi (known as Radbaz), who served in this capacity for forty years in Egypt, ruled that the Beta-Yisrael were indeed Jews. But that was in the 16th century. The 19th-century German Orthodox scholar, Azriel Hildesheimer, supported this view, as did Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, Avraham Yitzhak Ha’Kohen Kook. The recent history of rabbinical refusal to accept the Beta-Yisrael as Jews, both in Israel’s National Religious Party and in its Chief Rabbinate, is mainly an instance of modern Judaism’s tendency to slide from religion into ethnicity. As Howard Sachar remarked of a 1968 court ruling about the rabbinate’s refusal to register an Ethiopian Jew for marriage: “The Falashas . . . were suspected by the rabbinate of having intermarried in Ethiopia generations before, and therefore since they weren’t Jewish by nationality (ethnic identification), they were not entitled to Jewish religious rights.”

If it is ironic that Israel’s appointed guardians of talmudic tradition should be the only group in the country that places ethnicity ahead of religion in this matter, it is tragic that a subject of daily public discussion has been made out of the Jewish identity of people who are religiously observant, who have suffered for countless generations because of their Jewish identity, and who have been brought to Israel under a law that applies only to Jews. In a sharp attack on the rabbinical authorities, the columnist Shmuel Katz asserted that their daily pronouncements on the Jewishness of the Ethiopian Jews showed them to be either ignorant or contemptuous of the talmudic dictum that “putting your friend to shame in public is equivalent to shedding blood.” Indeed, a small group of the immigrants responded to the Chief Rabbinate by threatening to shed their own blood if they were not recognized by Israel as complete Jews, equal to all others. But such reactions are not representative of the community at large, which despite its profound resentment of the rabbinic demand for conversion, is not given to the language of threat and violence.

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The humane and generous reception of the Ethiopian Jews by the Israeli people, and the decision by the government to treat them not as relics of the Stone Age who might be taught just enough to become hewers of wood and drawers of water, but as full citizens of a free and independent state, would seem to offer conclusive proof that Zionism is not “racism.” But it was naive of politicians, Yitzhak Shamir among them, to voice the hope that Israel’s enemies would view the matter in this light. Assorted Marxists around the world have echoed, with local variations, the official statement issued by the Ethiopian government that “It is a serious affront to the sensibilities of world public opinion that the current drought and famine in Ethiopia should be invoked as an excuse for the Israeli-engineered . . . massive kidnapping of the Falashas. . . . The entire operation conjures up the revival of the slave trade . . . [an] act of brigandage. . . .”

But it is not only Marxists who have spewed fire and vitriol at Israel for its rescue mission. In Germany, for example, the prize for moral obscenity must go not to any of that country’s large number of certified crazies and anti-Semites but to the Israel “experts” on Germany’s main television news program, watched nightly by tens of millions of Germans. The main message of the report, which came within days of Israel’s official acknowledgment of the rescue operation, was that here was the culminating demonstration that Zionism is another version of South African racism.

The network’s reporter in Israel conveyed the first lesson of the evening, which was that the Israelis do not want the Ethiopian Jews at all; why else would they have intentionally leaked news of the airlift to the press?

The second lesson, which was taught by the network’s commentator on Israeli affairs, was that Israelis are racists because they airlifted the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The commentator inveighed against the “selectivity” and “egoism” of a state and religion that uprooted hungry people from native soil and transplanted them to an alien land as part of a cynical arms deal masquerading as “humanitarianism.” He then trotted out the by now formulaic equation of Israelis with Nazis. Once the yellow patch had the word Jew inside it, but now it enclosed the label hungry, and the selections and transports were being conducted by Jews themselves. Did not this prove, he concluded with a flourish, that all the resolutions of the UN and of the African Solidarity Congresses equating Zionism with racism were in fact true? The only thing he neglected to do was to identify, as the ultimate instance of Israel’s racism, its failure to ship its own citizens southward to starve along with the Ethiopians.

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Rarely have the enemies of Jacob offered more convincing evidence of the truth of the old saying that what matters is not what the Gentiles say but what the Jews do. In fact, if no one is watching too closely, this might be one of those rare moments when Israel can take the risk of congratulating itself upon the greatness of its people and the littleness of its enemies. Operation Moses has demonstrated that it is the Jews and not their adversaries who have rightly understood the Lord’s question (Amos 9:7): “Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel?”

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Footnotes

1 The origins of the Beta-Yisrael have been a matter of scholarly dispute. Yitzhak Ben Zvi, in The Exiled and the Redeemed (1963), enumerates three theories. One traces their ancestry to King Solomon's men who brought the Queen of Sheba back from Jerusalem and then settled in Ethiopia; a second claims they were direct descendants of the Jewish mercenaries of Yeb (Elephantine) and Sweneh (Assouan), who migrated south and settled in Ethiopia; a third holds that they were the direct descendants of Arabian Jews who came to Ethiopia in the 6th century CE. Ben-Zvi favors the second theory, of descent from the Jews of Upper Egypt.

2 Stein & Day, 1979. David Kessler's book. The Falashas: The Forgotten Jews of Ethiopia (Holmes & Meier, 1982), is a useful supplement to Rapoport.

3 From Maimon, the North African sage who was the father of Maimonides.

4 In 1267 the Church Council of Breslau declared: “In view of the fact that Poland is a nova plantatio in the body of Christianity, there is reason to fear that her Christian population will fall an easy prey to the influence of the superstition and evil habits of the Jews living among them, the more so as the Christian religion took root in the hearts of the faithful of these countries at a later date and in a more feeble manner.” When the Jesuits descended upon Ethiopia in 1541 they came quickly to the conclusion that there was a “dangerous Hebraic mold” to the Abyssinian Christian Church, from which it would urgently have to be rescued.

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