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Middle East History

An Unlikely Exodus

Reviewed by Charles Lane
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW12


The Daring Rescue of the

Ethiopian Jews

By Stephen Spector

Oxford Univ. 279 pp. $28

Central to Zionism is the notion that Israel is the home of all Jews in the world, no matter where they happen to live at the moment. Accordingly, the "ingathering of the exiles" through an often inspiring, sometimes difficult process of immigration and assimilation -- is a great point of Israeli pride. A generation of Israeli schoolchildren has grown up on such stirring stories as "Operation Magic Carpet," the semi-clandestine airlift that brought some 45,000 Jews out of Yemen between 1949 and 1950. The resulting Israeli melting pot, its ingredients drawn from every inhabited continent on Earth, is one of the wonders of the modern Middle East.

Yet this great ingathering has never been without its risks -- moral, political and logistical. The left-leaning founders of the state, Ashkenazic Jews from Europe, looked down for many years on the Yemenites and other dark-skinned Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern descent, who in turn resented their second-class status. The 1.1 million ex-Soviets admitted since 1990 include many whose actual Jewish heritage was dubious -- raising questions about Israel's Law of Return, which grants all Jews automatic citizenship but does not answer the riddle "Who is a Jew?"

Perhaps no story encapsulates both the promise and problems of Jewish migration to Israel better than the tale of the black Jews of Ethiopia. Until the 1980s, the vast majority of the Beta Israel (as they called themselves) or Falashas (as others called them) lived in highland villages north of the capital, Addis Ababa. Their religious practices were frozen in pre-Talmudic times, their origins more the stuff of legend than of history. Some Ethiopian Jews say they descend from Menelik, first-born son of Solomon and the queen of Sheba; others say they are the lost tribe of Dan. Scholars theorize that they are descended from migrants from southern Arabia, just across the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa.

Amid the war and famine that marched across Ethiopia after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the Beta Israel began to stir and, ultimately, to leave. They set their sights on Israel, whose rabbinical authorities, after much foot-dragging, affirmed the Falashas' Jewishness in 1975. In Operation Moses, from November 1984 to January 1985, Israel airlifted some 6,500 Falashas from refugee camps in Sudan, Ethiopia's next-door neighbor. And in Operation Solomon -- the subject of Stephen Spector's often fascinating narrative -- Israel airlifted another 14,000 in less than 36 hours during May 1991. As of 2003, about 93,000 of Israel's 6 million people were of Ethiopian origin.

Spector, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is generally upbeat about what he calls the "rescue" of the Ethiopian Jews. But he also explains that this unlikely exodus was the culmination of diplomacy by Israel, the United States, American Jewish groups and the Dergue -- the brutal post-Selassie government in Addis Ababa run by Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. Basically, the Dergue treated the Falashas as hostages to be bartered for cash or weapons. Israel did offer a modest amount of military hardware, Spector reports. But, constantly warned by the United States against arming Mengistu's formerly Soviet-backed regime, from which Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to disengage, Israel mostly sought to deal in cash, much as it had purchased the departure of Jews from Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania.

By May 1991, Addis Ababa was flooded with thousands of Falashas. They had left their villages for the squalid capital thanks to transportation organized by Susan Pollack, a volunteer from the tiny American Association for Ethiopian Jews. Pollack had become convinced that conditions in the highlands were no longer safe. She also believed that Israel would ultimately take the Beta Israel and that Ethiopia would let them go, even though she had no official guarantees on either score when she began encouraging them to move.

Spector cites several authorities who argue that the Ethiopian Jews had actually managed to avoid the worst of the fighting in the countryside and would have been relatively safe if they had remained there. Still, by the end of 1990, they were living in unsustainable conditions in the capital, where money was short and HIV was epidemic. From Addis, they did need to be rescued. Pollack, "more than any other person, created the crisis that necessitated Operation Solomon," Spector writes. "She is the heroine . . . or the villain, depending on one's perspective."

The Dergue let the Ethiopian Jews out in dribs and drabs, haggling all the while for Israeli guns. As Spector's crisply told story builds toward its conclusion, it becomes clear that Mengistu's regime had overplayed its hand. With rebel forces bearing down on Addis, and with Mengistu having decamped to Zimbabwe, the remnants of the Dergue hastily agreed to let all of the Beta Israel leave at once -- in return for $35 million. The Israelis paid more than $2 million to Kassa Kebede, Mengistu's point man on Jewish affairs, and smuggled him to Israel ahead of the rebel onslaught. Ironically, according to Spector, the $35 million wound up in the hands of the rebels when they became the new Ethiopian government.

Israeli troops in mufti took over the Addis Ababa airport and landed one plane after another, each stripped of seats so that as many evacuees as possible could be packed in. Spector recounts near-chaos as the Ethiopian Jews clamored to get on board -- and quiet joy as the first of them realized that they had landed in the Holy Land. "In Washington, D.C., watching the airlift on TV, Susan Pollack wept," Spector writes. "The Israelis had done just what Israel was founded to do, she thought -- pluck Jews out of danger."

Israelis rallied to the Ethiopians' aid. They celebrated the airlift as yet another triumph of their national skill and determination -- and vivid refutation of the "Zionism is racism" smear. Yet, as Spector somewhat sketchily acknowledges, the Falashas did not all live happily ever after. Today, he writes, the "hardship" they endured to sustain their Jewish identity in Ethiopia "continues . . . in the land for which they yearned for so long." In 1996, Ethiopian Jews nearly rioted when they learned that the Israeli government was secretly throwing out blood donated by Ethiopians because of the group's high rate of HIV infection. In a recent poll, some 43 percent of Israelis said they would not marry an Ethiopian or let their children do so. Ethiopian Israelis are three times more likely than other Israelis to live below the poverty line; 90 percent of employed Ethiopian Israelis hold low-wage jobs, according to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

This is, perhaps, the inevitable start-up phase of a process that will lead to full assimilation, just as second- and third-generation Sephardic Jews (like President Moshe Katsav) enjoy better opportunities than their forebears. Yet Spector's valuable account, centered on the efforts of American diplomats, American Jews and Israelis, could have benefited from a more systematic exploration of the minds and hearts of the Beta Israel themselves -- and of how the social costs of transporting an ancient community overnight from the middle ages to modernity might have been foreseen and avoided. •

Charles Lane is a Washington Post staff writer.

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