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Triumphant and tragic story of the Ethiopian exodus to Israel -- Book Review

On Wings of Eagles

By Micha Feldmann

Published by Gefen

Paperback. Price: $24.95

Reviewed by Mike Porter 

Reading this book is an intense experience, but well worth the effort. Feldmann's diary begins in 1982 – the year he was appointed coordinator of the aliyah of immigrants from Ethiopia – and covers the nine-year period of the operation. The diary format gives an immediacy and an intimacy to unfolding events. By the end of the book I felt I knew and understood a great deal about the Jews of Ethiopia, who were brought to Israel in the final decades of the 20th century.

The story of the aliyah of the Ethiopians (the Falashas or Beta Israel as they call themselves) is both triumphant and tragic. It was triumphant because in the face of tremendous difficulties they were brought to Israel thanks to coordination between the Jews of Israel and America, Israel's air force and the navy. At one stage commandos in rubber dinghies ferried the refugees from the shores of the Red Sea to the waiting ship, which was described by a refugee as "a large wall ... rocking on the water." On the other hand it was tragic because of the untold suffering of the Jews during the extended period of waiting for their Jewishness to be recognized by the state.

In the remote northern mountain villages of Ethiopia, the Beta Israel had kept their Jewish faith for millennia. Before meeting Professor Yosef Halevy in the 19th century they had believed that they were the last Jews on earth. They continued to observe the Torah commandments and their prayers still expressed the longing to return to Jerusalem.

When Israel was formed, Jews were brought in from Europe, Asia and Africa. The Jews of Ethiopia were rejected. Those few who did manage to get into the country during this period did so illegally and, once in Israel, had to go into hiding from the authorities.

It took 25 years of wrestling with the problem, for the religious leadership to recognize the Jewishness of the Ethiopian Jews. In 1973 the then Sephardi chief rabbi, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, gave a positive answer to the Falashas' appeals for recognition, and two years later they were included in the Law of Return. However, this was the time when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the followers of Mengistu Haile Mariam, a tyrannical leader who has since been held responsible for the death of more than a million of his fellow countrymen. During this period all the inhabitants of Ethiopia were prohibited from leaving the country.

Tens of thousands of refugees, including Jews, began to stream into Sudan. They walked by night through deserts and over mountains, hiding in forests and caves during the day. Many died on the way and were buried at the roadside. In Sudan, refugee camps were set up by international organizations. Over the years the number of refugees grew at a tremendous rate.

Another tragedy involved the Falash Mura, the descendants of Jews whose ancestors had been converted to Christianity. The extensive family ties among the Ethiopian Jews meant that Falash Mura and Beta Israel families were often related, and the "selective" immigration to Israel was the cause of many families being torn apart.

Micha Feldmann, who spent several years in Ethiopia and learned to speak fluent Amharic, notes amazing and horrifying stories he was told by the refugees. In 1983, Feldmann helped a frail old man who had sworn that when he arrived in Jerusalem he would taste its earth. "So that he would not need to bend down I scoop up a handful of Ashkelon earth ... I innocently expect him to kiss the earth ... but the man takes the sand from my hand and starts to swallow it." The old man began to choke and had to be given water. Feldmann tied up the remainder of the sand in the man's robe and told him to guard the "holy earth". He asked, through an interpreter, what the sand tasted like, and the old man answered "Genet" (Paradise).

Feldmann's diary, while giving an in-depth picture of what was involved in saving an entire population of outcasts, also tells us a great deal about the Ethiopians. Essential differences began to emerge: "The problem of marital status among Ethiopian Jews is more complicated than we've ever encountered with any other immigrant group in Israel," he writes. Marriages arranged while children were virtually babies meant that as they grew up more than half of the adults had been divorced at least once. Another factor was geographical: the refugee camps "often involved family separation. As a result families do not make aliyah together ... many families have split up, some staying in Ethiopia, some remaining in Sudan and others making aliyah." Another difference surfaced in the matter of "pikuach nefesh," - the saving of lives. In an effort to prevent more children from dying, Feldmann brought urgently needed vaccines from Israel to the embassy in Addis Ababa. Friday arrived, and many children were still waiting to be vaccinated. He decided that vaccinations would continue over the Sabbath. "A delegation of kessoch (spiritual leaders) came to me and in their usual pleasant manner asked to postpone the campaign until Sunday. I was furious. How can such an operation be delayed when children are dying?" The kessoch asked him why he was so insistent, and he gave them the halachic ruling: saving a life takes precedence over Sabbath. The kessoch did not give an inch, and a senior kes told him that while they understood his concept, "…our belief in God is so great that we believe that if the Holy One ... wants it, whoever needs a vaccination in order that his life be saved will live until Sunday. There is no need to desecrate the Sabbath." "They did not persuade me," writes Feldmann. "The kessoch are hurt, but, nevertheless, I did not yield ... We have to save the children's lives."

We find out about "Aleph", a young Israeli in charge of undercover operations. Aleph successfully dealt with authorities and soldiers, often in situations where the slightest slip or wrong move would have meant imprisonment and even death. Of course no one ever revealed anything about him.

Huge sums of money – largely donated by the Israeli government and American Jewry – were needed to keep the refugees alive in camps in Ethiopia and the Sudan, and to meet the outrageous demands made by government officials in those countries in return for their cooperation.

The final days in 1991, with a revolutionary army on the hills around the airport waiting to invade, with time running out and more than 14,000 refugees still to be airlifted out of Addis Ababa in less than two days, make for intense reading, even though the reader is aware of the outcome. I turned the pages hurriedly, waiting for the triumphant cry of "That's it – we're done." In the last few seconds a group of Beta Israel women miraculously arrived at the airport. They were quickly squeezed into one of the already overloaded Hercules aircraft, and within minutes the planes were on their way to Jerusalem.

Not merely a colorful story, I would recommend this book to even the most serious scholar of Jewish history. If I do have a criticism it is the title of the book, which I remember having been used in regard to the airlift of the Yemenite Jews in 1950. How about "The return of a lost tribe?!" 



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