Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes
How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews By Howard M. Lenhoff
How atypical heroes catalyzed and participated in the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews.. More Below
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Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes
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How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews
Howard M. Lenhoff
Gefen Publishing House
Seldom has a small grassroots organization polarized American Jewry as did the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) and seldom has a grassroots organization been so successful.
How were five governments persuaded that it was to their interest to allow the threatened Jews of Ethiopia to fulfill their dream of rejoining their brethren in Israel? From 1974 through 1991, active AAEJ members demonstrated that it was possible to rescue black Jews from Africa. They enlisted the support of college students, American Rabbis, editors of the Jewish press and other Zionists. Lenhoff’s memoir provides many untold stories behind this historic drama: How Israeli Ethiopian Jews and Americans Jews worked secretly to rescue over 1,000 Ethiopian Jews. How Jerry Weaver masterminded Operation Moses – the first mass exodus of black Africans as free people – not as slaves. How two gutsy American women set up a situation allowing Israel to rescue 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in one day of Operation Solomon. There is more: the intrigues in Israel between the politics of religion and the Law of Return; the daring heroic adventures of courageous Ethiopian Jews as they trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan. These are the stories of activists who challenged the establishment and won!
Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes is written from the first-hand experiences of one of the AAEJ's three Presidents, scholar-activist Howard Lenhoff. Lenhoff and Gefen Publishing House are especially pleased to present also as part of this book, the untold story of “righteous gentile,” Jerry Weaver.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: HOWARD M. LENHOFF Howard Lenhoff is currently Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and Adjunct Professor at the University of Mississippi. He was President of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews from 1978-1982 and a member of its board of directors from 1974 until the AAEJ closed its doors in 1993. Author of over 200 publications and 11 books, Professor Lenhoff has served for various periods as an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and as Professor of Political Sciences at UCI. He has been a guest researcher, faculty, or fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and in Eilat, at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion), and at Ben Gurion University.
Critic Reviews: Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes is a memoir of the untold stories behind the rescue of the black Jews form Africa; how the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) worked secretly to rescue over 1,000 Ethiopian Jews …as free people, and furthermore the rescue of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews [by Israel] in one day. Lenhoff’s amazing memoir depicts the politics of religion, the law of return, and courageous, noble and daring heroes and Ethiopian Jews on a journey of salvation – a historic drama and liberation and relief. “4 stars – Outstanding” Memphis Jewish Scene May 2008
A few months ago I received a telephone call from Howard Lenhoff, a former member of the Berkshire Jewish Community who now lives most of the year in Oxford, Mississippi. Howard had been sent a copy of the Berkshire Jewish Voice by his sister, Barbara Schwartz, and had read the article I wrote about my colleague’s trip to Ethiopia.
Howard had been involved in early efforts to rescue Ethiopian Jews and had worked closely with Will Recant (now of the “Joint Distribution Committee”) when he was on staff at the “American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ).”
Howard asked if I was related to “Mickey” Schiff, a name I hadn’t heard in a long time. “Mickey” Morton Schiff is my father-in-law, of blessed memory, and Howard knew him growing up.
Howard asked, if I would review his new book Black Jews, Jews and Other Heroes, How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, for the ‘Voice.” How could I say no …a friend of my father-in-law, a former member of the Berkshire Jewish Community, a man who was involved in the initial efforts to bring Ethiopians to Israel, and who worked with Will Recant, one of my heroes.
While I am not trained as a book reviewer, it is my hope you will glean from this examination a sense of the enormous impact committed volunteers can and do have on the lives of individuals and the Jewish people.
In the first chapter Lenhoff writes:
As you read this book, may you share the drama, the challenges and the heartaches we experienced along the way, and our sheer ecstasy when we learned that we had saved lives, sometimes one at a time and sometimes by the thousands. There is no thrill like it.
The younger reader may find in this book a paradigm for progressive activism. There is hardly a time when the survival of a population, Jewish or non-Jewish, is not in danger. Described here is how a small group of political activists working in a democracy, like the United States, can convince another democracy, such as Israel to use its resources and risk its personnel to rescue an endangered population.
Rabbi Hillel wrote: “To save a soul is to save a nation.” That is a good start. What Israel did with the loving coaxing of the AAEJ activists was literally to save a nation.
Shortly after the creation of the State of Israel, interest began in helping the “Beta Yisrael” community of Ethiopia make aliyah. With the incorporation of the AAEJ in 1974, the effort took a major step forward.
Howard Lenhoff’s role in all of this was to “develop and strengthen the infrastructure of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews so it would grow, attract committed and talented people, and be recognized as a significant force among Jewish organizations.”
Lenhoff notes that Zionism was not part of his vocabulary while growing up in North Adams; however, in 1968 he received a Career Development fellowship from the National Institutes of Health and took the opportunity to work at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
During his nine-month visit he studied Hebrew, traveled throughout the country and became “emotionally committed” to Israel. When he returned to the States to work at the University of California he also became an “impassioned spokesman for Israel, sharing his newfound understanding of Israel’s central role in preserving the sacred heritage of the Jewish people and of its unique place as a haven for any Jew, oppressed or not, wishing to live there.”
In 1973, Lenhoff returned to Israel, as a visiting professor at the Technion. While there he had the opportunity to meet Rahamim Elazar, a 19-year-old Ethiopian who had arrived in Israel a year and a half earlier. Elazer told him “he had come to Israel to fulfill the dream of the Beta Yisrael to go to Jerusalem. Now that he had arrived, he wanted to get more education, find work, and earn enough money to bring his family out of Ethiopia to Israel.”
Upon Lenhoff’s return to California, Elazer’s determination haunted him and he forwarded funds to help. In December 1974, Lenhoff received a photograph from Elazer’s brother thanking him for saving his life and bringing him to Israel. However the letter also requested funds to help him bring his wife and two daughters to Israel. As Lenhoff states “Thus began the commitment which consumed our lives for nearly two decades.”
Shortly after getting involved in the Ethiopian effort, Lenhoff learned that, “the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews was of low priority because of the government’s view …that it was more important to Israel not to rock the boat of its relationship with Ethiopia by pushing for the release of the Ethiopian Jews.”
The AAEJ determined the first step in the process was to get the Chief Rabbis to proclaim the Beta Yisrael as Jews according to Jewish Law. Once this happened, in 1975, the government of Israel recognized the Beta Yisrael as Jews entitled to automatic citizenship and full benefits as prescribed under the 1950 Law of Return.
Through his connections in California, Lenhoff was able to increase interest in the Beta Yisrael. After three years of informing people of the situation, fifty thousand signatures were gathered asking Prime Minister Menachem Begin to meet with members of the AAEJ. Begin was touched that so many American’s cared …and that became the first of many meetings he held with the AAEJ. During the later half of 1977, Prime Minister Begin brought 120 Beta Yisrael to Israel.
In 1982 “a number of AAEJ members made a trip to Ethiopia and it provided the seed for some of the other members of the mission to organize the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).” NACOEJ representatives visited the Berkshires this past summer to discuss the organizations past and continuing efforts to assist Ethiopian Jews, both in Israel and Ethiopia.
By the fall of 1978 the AAEJ was receiving firsthand reports of the worsening situation of the Beta Yisrael in Ethiopia. Bandits were raiding Jewish villages. The government was killing innocent people and the country was experiencing a famine. The violence and hardship led the Beta Yisrael to head to refugee camps in the Sudan. The AAEJ decided something had to be done.
In 1978, Lenhoff became AAEJ’s president, a position he held until1982. In his first year Lenhoff notes that the following took place: “clandestine rescues in the Sudan, an increased budget reaching $75,000, negotiations with the prime minister of Israel, demonstrations at the Israeli Knesset, work to resolve long-standing factionalism within the various Beta Yisrael organizations in Israel, and the handling a quantum jump in membership and in contributions.”
In addition, the AAEJ: “a new kid on the block” of Jewish organizations, through this newly aggressive activism was now being recognized as a force to be considered and was receiving broad coverage by the Jewish press.”
In late ‘78 and early ‘79, the Ethiopian Jews in Israel began to publicly protest on behalf of their brethren in Ethiopian. They demonstrated in front of the Knesset, gaining worldwide attention. They wanted their families to join them in Israel and they wanted the government and the Jewish Agency to make it happen.
By June 1979, there were pro-Beta Yisrael activists groups in fourteen North American cities. They initiated a massive information campaign, which lead to additional grassroots groups and long established Jewish organizations passing resolutions urging Israel to rescue the Ethiopian Jews. Several individuals went to Sudan and working with the Mossad, thrity-two Beta Yisrael were taken out of Sudan, brought to Europe, and then Israel, all arriving by July 1979. Writes Lenoff, “This initial rescue although of small numbers had far-reaching consequences. It showed that, contrary to what some Israeli officials said, there were Ethiopian Jews in the Sudan who wished to come to Israel, and that they could be rescued – even by ‘amateurs.’ This first operation became a template for larger future operations. We could use it to exert leverage on the Israeli government to expand its rescue work.”
Additionally, by participating in the rescue, the AAEJ had taken a giant step from advocacy to direct action.
During 1979 and 1980, the situation of the Ethiopian Jews worsened even further. Insurgent groups or roving bandits attacked many Beta Yisrael villages. Hundreds of Ethiopians tried to escape to the refugee camps in Sudan. This caused the AAEJ to “increase its commitment to expanding pressure on mainline American Jewish organizations that seemed hesitant to support the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews.”
A major step was taken at the November 1979 General Assembly where there was for the first time a session on “African Jewry” and an Ethiopian Israeli who spoke at a plenary session. These efforts resulted in the Federation system passing a pro-Beta Yisrael resolution.
Between 1980 and “Operation Moses” in 1984, the AAEJ and the State of Israel carried out small rescue missions. These missions involved gathering the refugees secretly in Sudan and putting them on boats. From there they sailed to Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and then were taken to absorption centers in Israel.
Since the boat rescues were very dangerous, other methods were also employed for getting Beta Yisrael from the Sudan to Israel. One involved flying the Ethiopian Jews as refugees from Khartoum by commercial airlines to a European city, such as Athens, and from there to Israel and once, possibly twice, Israel landed a C-130 military cargo plane in the desert of eastern Sudan transporting 130 individuals to Israel. Additionally, the AAEJ was responsible for bringing 128 Beta Israel to Israel from Kenya. Like the missions in 1979, these rescues were not made public until after Operation Moses was disclosed.
During 1983 and 1984, through a collaborative program of the United States, Israel, Holland, and the Geneva based “International Organization for Migration,” some 100-120 Ethiopian Jews per month made “aliya.”
In the book, Jerry Weaver, the individual responsible for the success of the rescue, shares his first hand account of “Operation Moses,” which took place in November 1984. According to Lenhoff, this is the first time the complete story has been revealed. There are also detailed accounts of “Operation Sheba” (March 22, 1985) and “Operation Pidyon Shevuyim,” which rescued one thousand Ethiopian Jews in the four years following” Operation Moses.” In addition, the Israeli government rescued 640 Ethiopian Jews from the Sudan during 1986, ‘87 and ‘88.
In 1989, Israel opened an embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Writes Lenhoff: “Soon after, 150 Beta Yisrael left monthly for Israel. This number soon rose to two hundred, then three hundred. The numbers increased even more in 1990 when 4,153 Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel.”
By March 1990 there were a little over three thousand Beta Yisrael in Addis Ababa. An agreement between Israel and Ethiopia permitted them to make “aliya.” The Jewish Agency at this point was in charge of the compound and overseeing the flights to Israel. The AAEJ played a “monitoring” role. According to Lenhoff, 4,051 Ethiopian Jews made it to Israel that year.
“During the first five months of 1991,” Lenhoff writes, “5,188 Ethiopian Jews were taken to Israel and on May 24 and 25 “Operation Solomon” was implemented. “Operation Solomon” succeeded in lifting a whole community, 14,193 Ethiopian Jews from Africa to Israel in a single day!
Throughout the book, Lenhoff describes, in detail, the politics, behind the scenes maneuvers, and personalities that made this effort successful.
The book ends with a discussion of the state of the absorption process, which, according to Lenhoff, leaves much to be desired. He suggests: “To influence absorption policy, a grassroots organization needs to come forward. The rescue of the Beta Yisrael community from Africa – if followed by their successful absorption in Israel – would be such a fitting story of what Israel, the tiny and only democracy in the Middle East, truly stands for.”
Arlene D. Schiff Executive Director Jewish Federation of the Berkshires
Reader Reviews: “Howard Lenhoff was one of the great pioneers awakening the conscience of American Jewry to the need to rescue Ethiopian Jewry and bring it home. It is exciting to hear his account of the struggle. His voice deserves to be heard!”
-Rabbi Irving Greenberg President, Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation
“A blueprint for grass roots mobilization as well as a stirring saga of rescue and relief, Black Jews, Jews. and Other Heroes is above all else a tribute to the small group of Jewish activists who in spite of the indifference and even hostility of the Israeli government and some of the mainstream Jewish organizations in the US, managed to put the fate of the ancient Jewish community in Ethiopia on the agenda of the US and Israeli governments, and through their courage and persistence made possible the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry.
This riveting first person account of the role of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews in bringing about a modern day miracle is a must read for anyone who seeks to understand how Operations Moses, Sheba, and Solomon came to pass. If it is true, as the Talmud tells us, that 'he who saves a single life it is as if he has saved the entire world,' then Howard Lenhoff and the AAEJ have saved the world many times over, and Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes explains how and why they did it.
The book is a literary tour de force in praise of a monumental organizational achievement. May it inspire others to replicate their triumph on behalf of other downtrodden and repressed peoples who, unlike Ethiopian Jewry, still await the salvation of a helping hand.” -Stephen Solarz former Chairman of the Sub-committee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee