Eighty-four years ago, the S.S. St. Louis was turned away from Cuba and sought to dock in Miami, with 900 Jews on board, hoping to escape the Nazi grip on Europe. Many of them ultimately perished in the death camps.
To this day we admonish FDR, the Jews who served in the Roosevelt administration and the collective Jewish community for doing nothing; and we say if the Jewish homeland had existed then, it would have been different.
Unfortunately, when it comes to 12,000 Ethiopian Jews languishing in Addis Ababa and Gondar, Ethiopia — with an on-again, off-again civil war spinning out of control, a famine, malnutrition, an economy in ruins, minimal health care services, constant gunfire and the airport closed — the best that Israel was prepared to do was bring home only about 150 Israeli citizens who were in the country, and fewer than 50 Ethiopian Jews eligible to make aliyah.
By the time this “rescue” took place, the Fana militia who controlled the area had withdrawn from Gondar, preparing to fight another day, government forces had taken over and the airport was reopened.
In retrospect, all of this should have seemed inevitable, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than following these events minute by minute in the situation room, was on vacation with his wife at a resort and spa in the Golan Heights.
I first became aware of the plight of Ethiopian Jewry while I was director of community relations at the Cleveland Jewish Federation in the mid-1970s. During that time, I worked closely with the consul general of Israel for our region, Asher Naim, who was born and raised in Libya. Naim shared stories about the people of this community, many of whom trekked long distances to fulfill their lifelong dream of living in Israel. Many died along the way.
The first major exodus of Ethiopian Jews, Operation Moses, took place about a decade later, when I was president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, at which time more than 8,000 were airlifted to Israel between November 1984 and January 1985. It was a galvanizing moment for our Pittsburgh community.
Little did I know that the next major effort to resettle thousands would take place in 1991, led by my friend Asher Naim, who was then Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia. Naim was a key figure in advocating for the airlift of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel on May 24-25, a heroic effort dubbed Operation Solomon.
Three chief rabbis of Israel have ruled that Ethiopian Jews should be resettled in Israel. Thousands of those waiting have first-degree relatives in the country; up to 2,000 of them were in the process of being approved by Israel for reunification before the government removed funding for this purpose in its budget for 2023-2024. Meanwhile, everything has ground to a halt, except the threats posed by the realities on the ground.
Israel’s refusal to recognize that this Diaspora community has the same rights as Diaspora Jewish communities worldwide is a sad reality.
Many of us decry the fragmentation of our democracy in the U.S. In Israel there is a similar devolution, with ongoing
divisions related to the process of adopting judicial reforms. No one knows how all of this will play out in the days ahead.
While there was the possibility of a galvanizing rescue of Ethiopian Jews, mirroring the bold actions of Israel’s government during Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively, Israel chose to do virtually nothing.
When I reflect on this tragic situation, all I can think about is what the Jewish people’s guidepost is supposed to be: “Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy fellow, witnessing his death, you being able to rescue him, if, for instance, he is drowning in the river, or if a wild beast or a robber is attacking him.” (Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4 8; Sanhedrin 73a) Have we truly arrived at the goal of the founders of Israel, to become a nation like other nations, this time tragically modeling the inaction of those other nations that sat idly by while our brothers and sisters perished during the Holocaust? PJC
Howard M. Rieger was president/CEO Jewish Federations of North America, 2004-2009, and is a volunteer with Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry.