NEW YORK (May. 28)
Every week for several months now, 150 Jews have boarded commercial flights from Ethiopia and, with neither fanfare nor secrecy, made their way to Israel.
Roughly 4,000 Jews were left behind after Operation Solomon, the massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews that took place May 25, 1991. The departure of these Jews is expected to be completed by the end of the rainy season in September.
This latest exodus lacks the drama of Operation Solomon, when 14,087 Jews were brought to Israel in a steady stream of military transports and E1 A1 jumbo jets, while the Ethiopian civil war parted like the Red Sea in the time of Moses.
But this final phase of the 2,500-year saga of Ethiopian Jewry is also blessedly free of the chaos and uncertainty that led up to that airlift. Thousands of Jews had congregated in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa awaiting departure on the on-again-off-again flights that eventually led to the emigration of about 5,000 Jews between March 1990 and May 1991.
That emigration was repeatedly stalled by the now-deposed government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in an effort to extract weapons from the Israeli government in exchange for Ethiopian Jews. Israel refused to accede to such a deal.
The current coalition government has placed no obstacles to Jewish emigration, according to representatives of Jewish groups facilitating the departures. In contrast to conditions under Mengistu’s military regime, Jewish visitors are now able to travel freely around the country.
It has not hurt that the approximately $35 million deposited in Ethiopian government bank accounts by the Israelis to encourage Mengistu to release the Jews was withdrawn by the new government.
Some of the Jews who are coming out now were unable to leave last year because they had been drafted into Mengistu’s army.
But most are from the remote Kwara region, in the western part of Gondar province, where most of the Jews had lived. Heavy fighting continued there as late as November.
110-YEAR-OLD WOMAN CARRIED ON MULE
For most Jews in Kwara, a walk of several days is required to reach the nearest dirt road. Once at the road, they are picked up by trucks and taken to a place called Teda, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the organization funded by the United Jewish Appeal, maintains a camp where the Jews are given food, clothing and medical care.
“One woman who was 110 years old came in. She had been carried on a mule for three weeks,” recalled Gideon. Taylor, who spent three months at the Teda camp for the JDC.
At its peak, the Teda camp was cooking half a ton of teff, a kind of wheat, every day.
Unlike those who waited at the JDC compound in Addis Ababa before Operation Solomon, the Jews in Teda are not uncertain about their fate. Each week, buses depart on the three-day ride to Addis Ababa, where commercial flights take them to Israel.
“They perceive the journey in biblical terms,” said Taylor. “They baked kita, a kind of matzah, before they set off on the journey.”
The JDC maintains a camp in Addis Ababa, where it feeds 3,000 converts who gathered there prior to Operation Solomon. The converts, known as Ferris Mora, say they left Judaism by force and want to go to Israel, where many of them have relatives.
The Ferris Mora, estimated to number from 15,000 to over 70,000, seem to have converted 20 to 100 years ago. Their fate is a religious and political morass that has yet to be resolved.
Last month Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, returned to Ethiopia’s Gondar province, which had been the center of the country’s Jewish population, to see the villages the Jews had abandoned on their trek to Israel.
“They’re ghost towns. There’s nobody there,” said Gordon.
ONE EMPTY HUT AFTER ANOTHER
“When we used to go to Waleka village, near Gondar City, all the women would rush to get out their pottery, they’d form a row to sell it to us.
“Now it’s one empty tukel, or hut, after another. There are maybe three or four families living in Waleka; they’re not Jewish. There’s a non-Jewish family living in the Waleka synagogue.
“It’s very strange. We’re very glad, thank God, what we want to have happened has happened — they’ve gone to Israel, they’re reunited with their families.
“Yet when you walk to a place that represented a Jewish world, and it’s over, you get this strange sense of loss that you didn’t expect,” Gordon said.
For the Ethiopians, the exodus of the Jews left holes in the economy. Certain crafts, such as metalworking, were Jewish professions, considered low caste by others, or perhaps touched by black magic.
One Jewish activist recently in Ethiopia was quick to add, however, that the remaining Ethiopians are not resentful of the departed Jews; they understand the wish of Jews to go to Israel.
Gordon said that when she visited Gondar, she heard there was still a Jew doing metalwork in the market. She went looking for him.
He wasn’t a Jew, “but I was taught by Jews,” he told Gordon proudly, “so people know it’s good work.”