In the summer of 1981, Barbara Ribakove Gordon traveled with a group of 12 other American Jews by foot, and on mule and horseback, through the Semien Mountains in northeastern Ethiopia until they reached a tiny, isolated, Jewish village perched on the edge of a cliff. Arriving, they went into “culture shock, deep, deep culture shock,” she said, taking in the sight of impoverished, barefoot, Jewish children and mud huts.
The villagers pointed out the one stone hut as their synagogue and showed them what they called their Torah, a book written in the ancient language of Gez. “We were wondering how we could ever make a connection, they were such strangers to us and we were strangers to them,” said Gordon, now 80. “But when we asked what parasha [weekly Torah portion] they were reading, they said ‘Noah.’ And back in America we, too, were reading ‘Noah.’ That was a transcendent moment, it changed everything. There were no longer any connection problems. We were just Jews who had come together and wanted to help each other.”
Gordon would return home to New York City and hold the first of several meetings to raise awareness about Ethiopian Jewry that would lead to her founding the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry the following year.
NACOEJ was the second major Jewish organization founded to assist in the goal of Ethiopian immigration to Israel, having been preceded by nearly a decade by the American Association of Ethiopian Jews. AAEJ was established in 1974 with the same goal, of lobbying the Israeli government to act, but with a decidedly different, sometimes aggressively outspoken style that seemed to irk the American Jewish establishment. These two organizations, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the JDC, a worldwide Jewish relief organization based in New York, would help form the basis of a movement for Ethiopian Jewry. Not only did they get the issue on the agenda of the Israeli government, they also lobbied for American governmental support that would make possible the three rescue missions that airlifted Ethiopian Jews out of Africa. They were named for biblical heroes and dubbed Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon.
Some American Jewish diplomats and politicians, working behind the scenes, also played key roles. Former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, most notably, was appointed President George H. W. Bush’s envoy to help arrange the Beta Israel exodus that became Operation Solomon in 1991, the daring and historic mass-rescue airlift that brought out 14,000 people to Israel in a day and a half. Crucially, it was also organized North American Jewry that would provide the funds, essentially a bribe, of $35 million that the Israeli government paid to the Ethiopian government for the release of the Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon.
“Israel did not have a version of the AAEJ agitating for Ethiopian aliyah, so without its existence in North America, it’s unlikely the mass immigration would have ever happened,” said American-born Micha Odenheimer, founder and director of Tevel B’Tzedek, an Israeli social justice group, who covered the Ethiopian Jewish immigration story extensively as a journalist.
“I think we [the American Jewish advocacy groups] played a very essential and critical role in support for the aliyah, one that started at a grassroots level and rose to organization, federation, religious and even political levels in America. But it was still something the Israelis did,” said Gordon. But Chicago businessman Nate Shapiro sees things somewhat differently. It took AAEJ, he said, to show it could be done, he recalls, describing how it was members of his organization who were the first to covertly bring Ethiopian Jews out of refugee camps in Sudan to Israel in the early 1980s, leading to the first Israeli rescue operations of Moses, and then Joshua, also out of Sudan. “And what were we but a ragtag bunch of nobodies willing to do something we believed in?” he said.
Shapiro also noted that the American Jewish establishment did not come on board until 1984, when Operation Moses began, before being cut off abruptly because of a leak to the media, embarrassing and angering the Sudanese government.
The Jewish advocacy and activist organizations were not without controversy. AAEJ was criticized at the time, and even to the present, for encouraging members of the Beta Israel community, as the Ethiopian Jews were known, to leave their remote villages in the area of Gondar for Addis Ababa, the capital, in what was seen by some as a bid topressure the Israeli government to act. In Addis, they lived in difficult conditions amid poverty and disease as they waited the long months for the completion of secret negotiations that eventually led to Operation Solomon.
But AAEJ officials have said they were following the Beta Israel leaders’ decision to make a move, based in part on fears the rebels, engaged in a civil war with the government, would overtake Addis Ababa before an escape was possible. Indeed it’s unlikely that Operation Solomon, which depended on having the Jews in a central location to gather and quickly be evacuated by air, would have been possible without having the community centralized in Addis. “We got a lot of flak for that, but it was done because it had to be done,” said Shapiro.
A brief and fragile cease-fire between the collapsing Ethiopian government and rebel troops, orchestrated as part of the Israeli deal with then-president Mengistu Haile Mariam, and paid for with North American Jewish money, managed to hold for the day and a half it took to complete the airlift.
The groundwork for that deal was facilitated with the Ethiopian government ties AAEJ had made in the late 1980s when they took small numbers of Ethiopian Jews out of the country by plane, said Shapiro. On those flights, they often took the non-Jewish children and relatives of Ethiopian government officials who feared − correctly − that a rebel takeover of the country was imminent.
AAEJ disbanded in 1993, once its members saw that the mission of bringing Beta Israel was accomplished, but NAECOJ continues on today. Until Operation Solomon, it had been seen as the more loyal, establishment organization, compared to the AAEJ. But later they became the main advocates for bringing over the Falashmura, Ethiopian families of Jewish descent who had converted under pressure to Christianity during the 19th century, but who expressed the desire to return to Judaism and be reunited with their relatives, some of whom are Beta Israel. It is the Falashmura immigration that the Israeli government is bringing to an end later this month.
Motivating the North American Jewish community seems to have played on a complex combination of civil-rights sensitivity to color and racism and a moral imperative to get the Ethiopian Jews, many of them poor and suffering from ongoing drought and hostile regimes and neighbors, to Israel.
“I would put that together with the idea of rescue [the history of American race relations] and the notion that American Jewry had not managed to rescue European Jewry, and here was this other endangered group of Jews, not endangered in the same way, but still at risk,” said Odenheimer.
Added Gordon: “The Holocaust had taken place within living memory in the 1980s. I think one of the things we absorbed is that you cannot walk away from a Jewish community isolated and in danger.” For Shapiro it was a moral and religious imperative: “We could not be indifferent to people who sacrificed their lives to be Jewish. If we had not gotten involved, we’d be denying everything we stand for.”
Helping Ethiopian Jewry was also seen by some in the Jewish community as a bridge to African Americans. And at least in the initial aftermath of Operation Solomon, that sense of good will was palpable. Marvin S. Arrington, president of the Atlanta City Council, wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly after Operation Solomon, “That a nation of white men should care enough about the survival of starving blacks to literally ‘take them home with them’ took me several moments to grasp. For an instant my mind flashed back to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and I could hear Martin Luther King, Jr., telling us his dream. I wanted to scream, “‘Martin, it is happening. Let me tell you what the Israelis have done.’”