"Attention must be paid," cries Willie Loman's wife, Linda, in Arthur Miller's play, "Death of a Salesman." And so it should. That being the case, attention should be paid to what Israel is doing in Ethiopia. It intends to rescue about 25,000 people.
The people in question are Ethiopian Jews, the so-called Falashas, who trace their ancestry back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They are an ancient and often persecuted people, separated from the main body of Judaism by race, geography and custom. An Israeli official who has met them at the plane put it this way: "They are suffering a jet lag of 2,000 years."
But they are suffering from more than that. They are suffering, many of them, from malaria, a disease not seen in Israel since the swamps were drained 50 to 60 years ago. They are suffering from typhus and tuberculosis and malnutrition, some so starved and thin that one Israeli doctor said he had seen nothing like it since the liberation of Nazi extermination camps.
For some time now, the rescue operation has been an official secret and all mention of it was censored in the Israeli press. The reason is that the Ethiopian Jews are being taken out of Africa on chartered planes that leave from the Sudan, a mostly Arab country still officially at war with Israel. Israel feared that publicity might either cause other Arab states to put pressure on the Sudan to cease cooperating or that the Sudan might do so of its own accord. Even when Israel was recently criticized for doing nothing to save Ethiopian Jews, the government chose not to respond by revealing the rescue operation.
The Falashas arrive in Israel with, as they say, nothing to declare. They have only the clothes they are wearing, so all they need is a place to live and clothes to wear and a language to learn and a trade with which to earn a living. All they have to do is go from a feudal society to a post-industrial one, and they have to do it while being black in a nation that is mostly white and, like most others, hardly immune to racism. It will not be easy. Last year alone, 10 members of Israel's relatively small Ethiopian community committed suicide.
The rescue operation is an enormous undertaking. Already, it is being budgeted at about $250 million, but that has to be just the beginning. There are five "absorption centers" in operation, and the costs will mount and mount -- schooling and social work and therapy and welfare and crime. Moses marched the Israelites around the wilderness for 40 years, waiting for the generation that had been slaves to die off. This generation of Ethiopian Jews will need some time too. In the meantime, it will need about 4,000 apartments.
Israel is a little country with a heart bigger than its purse. Its foreign debt is $22 billion, unemployment is running at a 19-year high (7.1 percent), last year's inflation rate was an incredible 475 percent and troops, of course, remain in Lebanon. Money aside, the rescue operation may even prove to be politically risky since, in a shrinking economy, a successfully assimilated Ethiopian could take the job of someone else -- probably that of a North African Jew who had trouble enough with his own assimilation. Israel has lots of experience with the assimilation of Third World peoples. It knows it is not done either cheaply or easily.
Nevertheless, it is being done. No hearings were held and no one yelled about losing jobs or spending money or making Israel even more an Asian and African society and less a European one. It is being done, it seems, for no other reason than it is the right thing to do -- the principle upon which the State of Israel was founded in 1948.
Since then, Israel has occasionally lost its way, and when it has, I and others have not hesitated to criticize -- to condemn and, in some cases, to vilify: the bombing of Beirut, the war in Lebanon, the occupation of the West Bank. But for some time now, Israel has been engaged in the noble business of rescuing dying people, of saving lives, and doing it not by shipping grain or sending a check, but by taking them in. It's not very often that something like that happens in this world.
Linda Loman said it best: Attention should be paid.