For students of America’s response to the Holocaust, it is a familiar scenario: a small group of dedicated activists try to bring about the rescue of persecuted Jews, only to find themselves obstructed by cold-hearted bureaucrats, jealous organizational professionals, and an indifferent news media.
But the story under scrutiny in a new book is not that of the Bergson Group, prodding the Roosevelt administration to intervene against the Holocaust. It is, rather, the tragically similar tale of the struggle waged by the American Association for Ethiopian Jews to bring about the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews from civil strife, famine, and anti-Semitic oppression in the horn of Africa.
Howard Lenhoff, the author of Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews (Gefen Publishing, 2007) was a University of California biology professor on sabbatical in Israel in 1973 when he chanced to meet several Ethiopian Jews who, on their own, had managed to reach the Jewish state. The encounters transformed his life.
From them Lenhoff learned about a forgotten community of black Jews, once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, fiercely clinging to Jewish tradition despite centuries of persecution and pressure to assimilate. Tracing their roots to King Solomon, the Beta Yisrael, as they call themselves, lost contact with the rest of the Jewish world in pre-Talmudic times. They were shocked to discover, in the early 1900s, that there was such a thing as light-skinned Jews. But in common with Jews of all colors, they prayed daily to return to the Land of Israel.
Sadly, early opportunities to bring Ethiopia’s Jews home to Israel were squandered. Lenhoff reports that in the 1950’s, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie agreed to a proposal by Norman Bentwich to permit Jewish emigration for $50 per person. One cannot help but recall the Romanian government’s offer, in 1943, to let its 70,000 Jews leave in exchange for $50 per person in transportation costs – an offer dismissed by Jewish leaders and sabotaged by Allied officials who did not want to be burdened with Jewish refugees. The Bentwich-Selassie plan likewise collapsed, but for a different reason: the Israeli government was not interested.
Although a strong supporter of Israel, Lenhoff pulls no punches in detailing the often unhelpful positions taken by some Israeli officials during this struggle. Part of the problem was that some rabbinical authorities initially denied the Beta Yisrael were genuinely Jewish. Minister of the Interior Yosef Burg was among the doubters and obstructed initiatives to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. At the same time, Abba Eban and other Israeli political leaders opposed raising the Ethiopian Jewish issue for fear it would harm Israel’s fragile diplomatic relations with Ethiopia.
Enter the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ), a grassroots activist group established in 1974. Lenhoff joined soon afterward and quickly rose to become one of its leaders. The AAEJ had an all-volunteer staff and a miniscule budget but made up for the paucity of resources with boundless energy and devotion.
Lenhoff chronicles an endless whirl of leafleting, meetings, and rallies, and, later, a series of hazardous missions to Ethiopia itself. Black Jews, Jews and Other Heroes is something of a primer on activist organizing and networking; those seeking ways to raise awareness of the Darfur genocide and other humanitarian causes will find it enlightening and immensely useful.
Lenhoff and his colleagues found that some mainstream American Jewish organizations were uninterested in Ethiopian Jewry, either because they took their cues from the Israeli government or doubted that the Beta Yisrael were Jews. Ironically, when Israel finally responded to a crisis of starvation among Ethiopian Jews by undertaking an emergency airlift in 1984, Jewish groups took an interest – and recklessly divulged the secret operation in order to stimulate their fundraising campaigns, causing a premature halt to the airlift.
Had such groups used their “effective public relations abilities ten years earlier to alert U.S. Jewry to the plight of Ethiopian Jews, then the crisis facing the Beta Yisrael in 1984 might never have materialized,” Lenhoff writes.
Bergson Group veterans still bitterly recall a similar episode from 1940. The SS Sakarya, carrying “illegal” Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine, became marooned on the frozen Danube River, yet U.S. Jewish leaders declined to provide funds to free it because the operation was carried out without the approval of the British Mandate authorities and the Jewish Agency. The money was raised from other sources, and the ship was rescued. Not long afterward, a United Palestine Appeal fundraising brochure featured a photo of the Sakarya as an example of the UPA’s achievements.