Official Recounts Ethiopia Operation, Advises Against Rescuing the Converts

Israel should abandon efforts to get thousands of Jews who converted to Christianity out of Ethiopia, says one of the key officials involved with last weekend’s breathtaking Operation Solomon airlift.

Kobi Friedman, senior representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Addis Ababa, said he personally feels bringing the converts to Israel would be an endless task and that the converts are not worthy of that effort.

But he stressed that if the Israeli government makes a decision to bring the converts to Israel, JDC will assist in whatever way it can.

Friedman, 39, was in charge of JDC operations in the Ethiopian capital during the past year. His responsibilities included overseeing food distribution, medical assistance and financial aid for Ethiopian Jews preparing to emigrate.

But he was also the man who organized the network that enabled the sudden, massive evacuation of the Jewish community.

His last clandestine operation in the capital was securing the fleet of buses that transported thousands of Jews from the Israeli Embassy compound to the airport.

Back in Jerusalem on Wednesday, exhausted after the longest week in his life, Friedman was asking himself how much longer the euphoria over Operation Solomon would last, and when the problems would begin.

He was concerned that the desire to bring converts remaining in Ethiopia to Israel might create insurmountable problems.

According to figures published here, the number of converts who reached Addis Ababa with the hope of joining kin in Israel is 3,000. Another 10,000 converts are believed to have remained in the northwest province of Gondar.

‘THIS WILL BE AN ENDLESS PROCESS’

But Friedman believes the number of converts is, in fact, much higher.

“I was told that almost all of the population in northern Ethiopia has Jewish blood in it,” he said. “Once you start getting them over to Israel on the basis of family reunification, this will be an endless process. There will always be someone who was left behind.

“If one could distinguish between those who have been forced to convert to Christianity and those who did so for a loaf of bread, I would have said: ‘Let’s make the distinction.’ “

But according to Friedman, not only is such distinction impossible, but the numbers of those who were forced to abandon Judaism was marginal, since Ethiopia does not have any practice of religious coercion.

In fact, in the few weeks before the airlift, Jewish emissaries were sent from Addis Ababa to villages populated by converts in the north, to discourage them from rushing to the capital. The 3,000 converts now in Addis Ababa are those who came anyway.

On May 23, a day before the evacuation, thousands thronged in front of the gates of the embassy compound, hoping to gain entry. There was no choice but to disperse them by force.

The desire to bring the converts to Israel is felt most acutely by relatives already here. A number of converts were allowed to make aliyah during the 1984-85 Operation Moses airlift, because it was impossible at the time to tell the difference between converts and Jews who stuck to their religion.

Friedman said he would not oppose their immigration so vehemently if it were not for the fact that converts are responsible for the deaths of many of the Jews who tried to make aliyah during Operation Moses.

LAST-MINUTE BUS SNAFU

During the height of that operation, some 8,000 Jews left their homes in Gondar province and walked for days across barren desert to the Sudan, where they were flown to Israel by way of destinations in Europe.

But as many as 4,000 Jews died along the way. Many sought shelter overnight in villages populated by converts, said Friedman, but the converts turned them over to the authorities, or killed them themselves.

Work began on Operation Solomon seven months ago. JDC gave the Ethiopian Jews double the regular food rations, in case they would have to stay at home. Five emergency store rooms were set up, each containing large quantities of lentil and wheat, each staffed by a team of 15 to 20 local JDC workers.

Friedman set up a network of some 140 local volunteers to check housing conditions for the potential immigrants. The network, which was based on the system the Israel Defense Force uses to call up reserves, was later used to summon people to the embassy at short notice.

The system worked flawlessly when the green light for the airlift was finally given. All but 220 Jews appeared at the embassy on time.

“Those who stayed behind did so either at their own choosing or because they messed up,” said Friedman.

On May 22, two days before the airlift, the director of the company operating the buses that had been booked to carry the Jews to the airport informed the Israelis that all the buses had been confiscated by the country’s beleaguered army.

At the last minute, Friedman and Jewish Agency representative Micha Feldman went to the municipal bus company and ordered a fleet of buses, ostensibly to drive the children at the embassy school to the zoo.

The director of the bus company believed every word he was told, a belief intensified by the large sum of money he was promised.

COMPETITION WITH SOVIET IMMIGRANTS

Sure enough, the buses all arrived on time, Even when the drivers realized they were not driving just children, but masses of grown-ups as well, and not to the zoo, but rather to the airport, they continued driving.

The JDC official refrained from making any forecast about how the situation will develop in Ethiopia. “My diary is full of expert forecasts which proved wrong,” he said.

Friedman does hope, though, that the new regime will be helpful, since it has no choice but to be on friendly terms with the West.

“What concerns me more is what will happen to the new immigrants here, after the euphoria is over,” he said. “I am afraid they will not be able to face the competition with Soviet immigrants.”

“It is difficult for me to see the elbowless Ethiopians pushing aside the ambitious Russians,” he said. “I anticipate an absorption period which will be even more difficult than that experienced by the previous Ethiopian immigration.”

NEXT STORY