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Israel an Airlift to the Promised Land

5 minute read
Hunter R. Clark

Their exodus begins on foot or by truck from primitive dwellings in the northwestern reaches of Ethiopia. In the past, those who managed to survive the arduous trek across the famine-ravaged land then had to endure, sometimes for years, squalid life in sprawling refugee camps on the Sudanese side of the border. They are called Falashas in Ethiopia, which in the Amharic language means “strangers” or “ones without a place.” But they have always had a spiritual home: Israel. Although these Ethiopians are black, they are also Jews, and they long for the Promised Land. The Israeli government was forced to reveal last week that it has been carrying out a costly, highly secret operation to satisfy that yearning. For more than a month, remnants of Ethiopian Jewry, emaciated and often suffering from a variety of tropical diseases, have been airlifted out of Sudan for resettlement in more than 25 towns throughout Israel.

The reports of the airlift brought an angry response from Ethiopia’s Marxist regime. In Addis Ababa, the Foreign Ministry called the operation “illegal,” “sinister” and “a gross interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.” The statement charged Sudan with accepting financial inducements to help the Israelis. Sudan denied the allegations, calling them “part of a malicious plot against Arab solidarity.” Neither Sudan nor Ethiopia has diplomatic relations with Israel. The cost of the airlift, code named Operation Moses, could exceed $100 million. It is financed largely by American Jewish organizations and individuals. To Israel, the program has a particularly deep meaning. According to Moshe Gilboa, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, the resettlement of the Falashas “rejects the cruel and ignorant assumption that Zionism is equated with racism.” Yet racism is what Israeli leaders have been accused of for failing to take steps sooner on behalf of these black Jews. The total number of Falashas has dwindled from several hundred thousand at the beginning of the century to some 25,000, scattered mostly throughout Ethiopia’s remote northwestern Gondar province. While some of this decline can be attributed to absorption by the country’s predominantly Ethiopic Christian culture or to inadequate health care, many may also have perished in pogroms. Since 1975, some 10,000 Ethiopian Jews have arrived in Israel, 3,000 of them as the result of Operation Moses. Prior to the present airlift, the typical method of escape was for couriers, financed mainly by private American Jewish organizations, to smuggle Falashas into Israel in small groups. This “underground railroad” usually took the emigres from Ethiopia to Sudan, then through third countries in Africa and Western Europe.

The Falashas’ surreptitious exodus has for years been an open secret in Israel and throughout Africa. And Ethiopian authorities have not objected to Jews emigrating to Israel to be reunited with their families. Nevertheless, Israeli military censors tried hard to prevent word of Operation Moses from leaking out, fearing that publicity might result in Ethiopia’s or Sudan’s slamming the door shut. The rescue mission was grudgingly acknowledged after Yehuda Dominitz, director-general of the immigration department of the quasi- governmental Jewish Agency, revealed its existence in an interview with Nekuda, a small West Bank Jewish settlers’ newspaper. He has since been suspended from his job for the indiscretion.

At week’s end the logistical details of the operation remained sketchy. It is believed, however, that a Belgian charter company, Trans European Airways, has been flying Boeing 707s to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, picking up the Falashas and flying them to Israel via Brussels and other cities in Western Europe. Israel faces considerable problems in assimilating its new Ethiopian residents. Even though their numbers are not great enough to strain school budgets or the job market, the Falashas’ presence has triggered racial tension. Last month the city of Eilat (pop. 20,000) refused at first to provide a group of the newcomers with water and electricity. “We don’t want blacks here,” one municipal official said.

Matters are complicated by the blacks’ religious practices, which differ from those of most Jews. They believe in the Torah, the basic Jewish Scriptures, observe the Sabbath and dietary laws, and are circumcised. The Talmud, Jewish law and its interpretation, seems never to have reached them, however, because of their geographic isolation. The issue of whether the Ethiopians are even Jews was not settled in Israel until 1972. That was when Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef decreed that the Falashas are “undoubtedly of the tribe of Dan,” the inhabitants of the biblical land of Havileh in what is today the southern Arabian Peninsula. A government committee later decided that the Ethiopians are covered by Israel’s Law of Return, which permits all Jews to become citizens upon arriving in Israel.

The Ethiopians have arrived in abysmally poor condition. Said one Israeli involved in the resettlement program: “They are coming here less than ill clothed, less than ill fed and without homes. We have had to start from scratch.” In fact, some arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport carrying nothing but water pails, cherished possessions in drought-stricken Sudan and Ethiopia. Many suffer from malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis, jaundice, typhus and tapeworm. “I had to go back to my textbooks to look up some of these diseases,” said an Israeli doctor.

Many Israelis take pride in the Ethiopians’ presence. Says David Hartman, director of the Shalom Hartman Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies in Jerusalem: “Jews can be yellow, black, whatever. The Falashas are here because our people are defined by Abraham’s covenant and not because someone ate gefilte fish.” Declares a government official: “We can only gain from showing the world the extent to which we are willing to go to rescue Jews. The rescue mission is a national achievement of the highest order.”

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