Book details rescue of Ethiopian Jews


Howard M. Lenhoff, currently professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi, has never been content to settle for a distinguished academic career in his important field. Lenhoff was not only the president of the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry from 1978 to 1982, he was a relentless, even heroic advocate for the rescue of the Ethiopian Jewish community, that culminated in the dramatic Israeli airlifts called Operation Moses, Operation Sheba (Joshua) and Operation Solomon, in which tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were rescued from dire conditions in refugee camps in Sudan to start new lives in the State of Israel.

Lenhoff recently published his compelling, but overly modest memoir, Black Jews, Jews and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of Ethiopian Jews, augmented by Jerry Weaver’s exclusive first-hand report on Operation Moses. Weaver served as refugee counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan in 1981-85, and has served as a professor and a director of the Public Administration Program of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles (1974-78).

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The remarkable Ethiopian Jewish community had been cut off from mainstream Jewry literally for centuries until re-discovered by European explorers in the 19th century. The Ethiopian Jews trace their ancestry directly back to King Solomon and his wife, the Queen of Sheba (Makeda), and their son Menelik, who was sent back to Jerusalem by the Queen of Sheba to be educated in the court of his father. According to the Ethiopian Jewish tradition, before Menelik left Jerusalem, Solomon anointed him King of Ethiopia, and he was given the secret mission of transporting the Holy Ark of the Covenant to the city of Askum. As the son of Solomon and grandson of King David, Menelik was a member of the tribe of Judah; as a result, during the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, from 1930 to 1974, he was referred to in official documents as “The Lion of Judah.” Conditions for Ethiopian Jews became increasingly unstable and dangerous following the ouster of Emperor Selassie in a pro-Marxist coup.

While there had been numerous references to Ethiopian Jews through the centuries, according to another book, The Ethiopian Jews of Israel, by Len Lyons, with photographs by Ilan Ossendryver, “the existence of the Ethiopian Jews came to the attention to the Jews of Europe through the work of Christian explorers and missionaries,” including “the adventurous Scottish traveler James Bruce who spent two years with the Falasha in the remote villages around Gondar during the 1770s.” The Jews were called “Falasha,” which means “stranger” in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, but the term later fell into disfavor because of its negative connotation. The community itself preferred to call themselves Beta Israel. Jews from Ethiopia who successfully made it to Israel were officially classified as members of the Tribe of Dan by the Israeli authorities and courts, and their Jewishness is generally accepted, with the exception of the Falash Murah, a group with some ancestors who may have been forced to convert to Christianity, and who sometimes go through a conversion ceremony once in Israel.

Until the formation of the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry by Howard Lenhoff and others in 1974, there was little organized, and effective advocacy on behalf of large-scale immigration of the community to the State of Israel. An early group was the Pro-Falasha Committee, which was strongly supported editorially by the late Gabriel Cohen, the longtime editor and publisher of the National Jewish Post & Opinion, including his Missouri Post & Opinion, which served the St. Louis Jewish community. In his often lonely quest for strong action to be taken to rescue Ethiopian Jews, Lenhoff found many allies in the St. Louis Jewish community. In a recent interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light, Lenhoff had warm praise for the St. Louis Jewish community.

“I came close to becoming a permanent member of the terrific Jewish community of St. Louis, when I considered an offer to join the medical school faculty at Saint Louis University; I was also in talks with Barnes-Jewish Hospital at the time. I considered St. Louis practically to be a second home, since so many important activists for Ethiopian Jewry were active there.” Lenhoff recalled the strong advocacy for Ethiopian Jews by such community volunteers as Elizabeth Hexter-Lev, Rabbi Lynn Goldstein and Elsie Roth, a registered nurse and member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, who made several trips to Ethiopia to donate her medical services to the Ethiopian Jews. “I also appeciate the strong support for the cause provided by the St. Louis Jewish Light and the American Jewish Press Association at the time,” Lenhoff added. Lenhoff was the keynote speaker for the AJPA at its annual conference in Washington in June 1980, where he passionately argued for urgent action to rescue Ethiopian Jews.

Lenhoff also recalled the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (now the United Jewish Communities) which was hosted by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and his contacts with the late Melvin Dubinsky, a past president of the Jewish Federation, and former budget and finance chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel in those days.

Lenhoff and his fellow activists did not have an easy time of it in their early efforts to get Israeli and Jewish organizational officials to take the plight of Ethiopian Jews seriously, but they soldiered on, making relentless telephone calls, and appearing at Israeli, United Jewish Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations and Jewish Agency meetings to argue their case. In one famous (or infamous) incident, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman was confronted at a 1979 meeting by a group of Jewish student activists asking for action to help Ethiopian Jews. “Falasha, shmalasha. Is that all you students think about?” Lenhoff describes Weizman’s dismissive comment as “a clear, unguarded illustration of the level of concern held by that important official who went on to become President of Israel.” Lenhoff sardonically points out that Weizman, as President of Israel, would appear in numerous “photo-ops” with Ethiopian Jews. “But in early 1980 the AAEJ published his callous ‘Falasha shmalasha’ remark, which energized us — especially the students — to increase the pressure.”

And indeed Lenhoff, the students and the entire American Association for Ethiopian Jewry did increase the pressure, without let-up until their efforts were crowned with dramatic success in Operation Moses, which began on Nov. 21, 1984, having almost been stillborn when over-zealous Jewish publications broke the embargo on the highly sensitive and ultra-secret operation. Despite the leaks, “Operation Moses was not interrupted and continued to bring Ethiopian Jews from the Sudan to Israel daily.” The Jewish Federation movement, including the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, raised millions of dollars to make Operation Moses, and the later Operation Sheba (Joshua) and Operation Solomon possible.

Today, there are over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews living in the Jewish State of Israel. While most of them arrived with absolutely no knowledge of modern society or technology, including flush toilets and elevators, they have been absorbed remarkably well into all aspects of Israeli society. No other nation in history has ever brought Black Africans to their land, not as slaves, but as citizens of an independent Jewish State. The Ethiopian Jews, like the 250,000 Holocaust survivors and the nearly l million from the former Soviet Union and 800,000 from Arab and Muslim lands, now form a vital facet in the kaleidoscope that Israel has come to represent to the world and to not only the survival, but the resurgence of the Jewish people in their Promised Land, about to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its independence.

Howard Lenhoff’s modesty precluded him from listing his own name among his “heroes” in his superb new book, but Lenhoff, and the many other activists he and other leaders of the AAEJ inspired clearly deserve to be regarded as modern day Jewsh heroes.