The Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews

By Ruth Gruber

Atheneum. 234 pp. $19.95

IN 1984 the secret and daring "Operation Moses" spirited some 10,000 Falashas out of refugee camps in the Sudan and brought them to Israel. Ruth Gruber has written a moving but simplistic account of the operation, glossing over controversies, problems and the fundamental issues surrounding the Ethiopian Jews. Her thesis is simple: the Falashas, a persecuted minority whose fate had worsened after the Ethiopian revolution because of political discrimination and famine, were saved and brought to the Jerusalem they and their ancestors had dreamed about for centuries.

The reality is more complicated. Ten thousand people have been rescued from the Sudan -- 15,000 counting the ones who managed to reach Israel in the early years of the revolution. Their integration in Israel will probably be difficult, but their life will undoubtedly be better, away from the chronic hunger and fighting which have become the lot of Ethiopian peasants in recent years. But the Falashas, with their ancient and unique tradition, are on their way to extinction. "The only way to preserve that tradition was to lift them out of Ethiopia and to get them into Israel," writes Gruber. But the last part of her book describes vividly the efforts to transform the new arrivals into Israelis. The 8,000 Falashas that still remain in their villages in Ethiopia are mostly old people and young children, who will have trouble preserving their culture. Ten thousand human beings are safe, but the Falashas are dying.

There has always been much controversy about the Falashas. In Ethiopia, they lived in small communities in the mountains near the ancient city of Gondar, a distinct minority that was not allowed to own land, was feared as having magical powers and made a living producing pottery and hiring out as agricultural laborers. Foreigners looked at them with a mixture of romanticism and skepticism. To some, they were the lost tribe of Israel, maintaining their religion and their culture in a hostile world -- the aspect Gruber stresses. Others refused to consider them real Jews. When the Falashas were discovered in the 19th century, Jewish organizations in Europe remained skeptical and uninvolved. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish organizations opened schools to educate the Falashas, but did not encourage their migration to Israel. In 1973, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel proclaimed in a letter that the Falashas were Jews, but did not succeed in settling the issue once and for all. Operation Moses was a controversial decision, and even now a dispute has broken out in Israel over whether the Ethiopian Jews should undergo a ceremony of purification, or even ritual circumcision, to reconfirm their identity.

The controversy is not surprising, Isolated in their mountain villages for centuries, the Falashas are culturally unique, Ethiopian peasants with a different religion. The pictures in the book are eloquent: Ethiopian huts, Ethiopian men, women and children, Ethiopian clothes and hairdos. Those young Falashas in their prayer shawls "brought by visitors from the United States and Israel" look like any other young Ethiopians wrapped in their shammasagainst the highland cold.

Gruber chooses to gloss over most of the controversies, which are mentioned only in passing. On the other hand she magnifies the problems the Falashas encountered in Ethiopia, portraying them as a group especially singled out for perescution since the 1974 revolution. The accuracy of her statements cannot always be checked. Where it can, the book contains many unforgivable factual errors, denoting sloppy research and a cavalier attitude toward facts. Reality and fiction mingle uneasily throughout the book.

There is no doubt about the hardship the Falashas experienced in Ethiopia and during the long trek to the Sudan, of which she provides moving accounts. But millions of other Ethiopians were caught in the same turmoil, and hundreds of thousand walked the same long, dangerous paths to the Sudan. "All the refugees suffered, but the Jews suffered more than any of the others," writes Gruber. In the sea of human misery Ethiopia has become, such glib statements are disturbing.

In one respect, Gruber is right in stating that the Falashas were different from the other 400,000 sick and dying refugees crowding the same camps in 1984. They were rescued and taken to a better life. The pictures of bright eyed, fat Falasha babies in Israel, so different from the starving Ethiopian children we have seen so often lately, are a good reminder that Operation Moses made the difference between life and death for many. But the Falashas are disappearing.

Marina Ottaway, associate professor of international relations at American University, has been writing about Ethiopia for over 10 years and, with David Ottaway, co-authored "Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution."