web analytics
July 30, 2015 / 14 Av, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

How Ethiopia’s Jews Were Rescued: The Inside Story


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.

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “How Ethiopia’s Jews Were Rescued: The Inside Story”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Dore Gold.
Foreign Ministry Calls Sunni Arab Nations ‘Israel’s Allies’
Latest Indepth Stories
Rabbi Yaakov Spivak

Hard to remember when Jewish youth were so hostile to their heritage as they are on campuses today.

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 were likely to be extended beyond Obama's self-imposed deadline.

Names of the enablers of Iran’s Nuclear weapons will be added next to Hitler’s on the list of infamy

By most accounts, the one person with the political muscle to swing enough Democratic votes to override a veto is Sen. Schumer.

The next day, in a speech in New York to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Kerry substantially upped the ante.

In Israel, the judiciary has established itself as superior to ALL other branches of the government.

The Fifteenth Day of the month of Av became a day of national rejoicing. The moment that had seemed hopeless became the moment of Redemption.

I think the melodies in our religious services have a haunting sound to them that just permeates your guts and gets into your soul. If you have any musical inclination, I think they inspire you to compose.

Cavalier analogies to the Holocaust are unacceptable, but Huckabee’s analogy was very appropriate.

Pollard was a Jewish-head-on-a-pike for all American Jews to see and to learn the explicit lesson.

If the Iran deal passes, Obama’s WH becomes world’s leading financier of terrorism against Americans

{Originally posted to the author’s website, FirstOne Through} Some passionate and eloquent liberals have bemoaned the state of inclusiveness among Jews today. Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic penned an angry piece “J Street’s Rejection Is a Scandal” about the exclusion in 2014 of J Street from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. […]

Magnanimity by Moshe Dayan, allowing Muslim control of the Temple Mount, led to today’s situation.

It was modeled upon a similar fund that had been set up by Sephardic Jews in Venice. But Amsterdam’s Dotar was initially more ambitious in scope.

Rav Aharon Margalit is a bestselling author – his book, As Long As I Live, has been translated into four languages – and a standing-room only lecturer. Both religious and non-religious audiences flock to hear him. What makes him so extraordinary? Rav Margalit is a Chasidic Jew who experienced incredible challenges from a very young […]

More Articles from Dr. Rafael Medoff
Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau

Morgenthau’s speech echoes history, reprising his father’s role of speaking truth to power: FDR

Ralph Nader

By using linguistic trickery, Nader is purposely looking to confuse the issue of anti-Semitism

An estimated 1.5-million Jewish men/women served in US, British, Soviet & Allied armies in WWII

Israeli history now has its version of “Dewey Defeats Truman” with headlines from 2 anti-Bibi papers

Prominent Jewish leaders acknowledged that their predecessors had mistreated the Bergson Group.

The long ordeal of the Armenian Orphan Rug, held hostage to fears of angering Turkey, has finally ended. Or has it?

Carter developed a fondness for Arafat believing “they were both ordained to be peacemakers by God”

With generous support from the Egyptian Jewish community, the exiled family built a new life for itself in the Mafruza and Gabbari refugee camps near Alexandria.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/how-ethiopias-jews-were-rescued-the-inside-story/2007/10/24/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: