The passage of Ethiopia's small, ancient, beleaguered Jewish community to Israel has a Biblical quality to it. The so-called black Jews, or Falashas -- the word is Amharic for "stranger" -- are said to be descended from a Jewish tribe that has been cut off from the rest of world Jewry for more than 2,000 years; they trace their beginnings to a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Sharing the dismal poverty and backwardness of most other Ethiopians, a small number of the 10,000 or 15,000 Jews of the country had begun emigrating to Israel in the 1970s. The current great drought in Ethiopia, however, provided the stimulus and opportunity for the Israelis to attempt to bring all willing Ethiopian Jews -- just about the whole community -- to the Jewish state.
It is not entirely clear that the Marxist government of Ethiopia has been paying any serious attention to Israel's rescue of the tiny Jewish fraction of the millions of Ethiopians who have been dying and suffering because of the drought. The regime may have allowed them to slip out as part of a still-obscure transaction with Israel, which apparently supplies spare parts for airplanes the previous government acquired from the United States. The departing Jews, fleeing death and famine along with hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians, ended up mostly in Sudan.
Sudan, in the circumstances, then went out on a considerable limb. Its involvement may not have been entirely disinterested but, as an Arab country officially at war with Israel, it stood to face harsh political attack from other Arabs for "collaborating with the enemy." Yet it allowed thousands of refugees to move to Israel, by an indirect route, from November on.
It was Israelis who, for some baffling reason, broke the official silence that had shielded the flight of the Ethiopian Jews by keeping it in half-light. The Ethiopian government at once denounced the rescue, calling it "sinister" and a "gross interference" in its internal affairs -- words that emphasize the character of the Marxists but that change very little, since the regime was neither cooperating with the exodus nor in a position to do much to halt it. More harmfully, the Sudanese government, embarrassed in the eyes of its fellow Arabs, halted the airlift out of Khartoum.
The common effort now should be to allow matters to cool so that Sudan can reconsider quietly this unfortunate judgment. Some 4,000 or 5,000 Ethiopian Jews are estimated to remain in jeopardy. Israel, in keeping with its prime purpose as a nation, is ready to receive them. Those who can be saved must be saved.