Ethiopian Jewry Group Closes Shop, Saying Its Work is Done

Two years after some 14,000 Jews were airlifted from Ethiopia in Operation Solomon, the American Association for Ethiopian Jews has decided its work is done.

The 24-year-old organization’s board voted last month to close up shop by the end of the year.

“We met our mandates and goals of rescue and relief for Ethiopian Jews,” explained William Recant, the association’s executive director.

“It is our belief that all of the Jews are out of Ethiopia, that any stragglers are free to come and go as they please. Rather than metamorphose into something else, we decided to stick to our original guns.”

For the past two years, since the massive airlift on May 24-25, 1991, and the subsequent reunification of those left behind in that operation, the AAEJ has been working together with the Israeli government and other Jewish organizations to aid the absorption of Ethiopian Jews.

That process of absorption, said Recant, is now well underway.

“The world is filled with Jewish organizations that can serve (the Ethiopian Jews), so why should we duplicate them?” said Nathan Shapiro, AAEJ’s president since 1982.

The Canadian Association for Ethiopian Jews, which had been closely aligned with the AAEJ, last year decided to go a similar route and closed its doors.

Despite these considerations, however, another organization devoted to Ethiopian Jews has no plans to close up shop.

“Our scope was broader,” explained Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. “Caring for the Jews in Ethiopia, rescuing them, helping their absorption and preserving their culture are all part of our mission.”

At the same time, NACOEJ is working with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to assist roughly 4,000 Falash Mora gathered there.

The Falash Mora, Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity in the past century or so, seek to emigrate to Israel, where some have relatives who entered as part of Operation Solomon or an earlier airlift of Ethiopian Jews, Operation Moses in 1984.

2 GROUPS DISAGREE OVER FALASH MORA

NACOEJ has supported the Falash Mora in their effort to emigrate, while the AAEJ has gone along with the policy of the Israeli government that, in general, the Falash Mora are not to be treated as Jews.

“We were the ones there when people came from Gondar to Addis Ababa,” explained Recant. “A lot of people got off the bus, who now say they are Falash Mora. They said, ‘we’re Christians and we want to go to Israel.’”

The postures of the two activist groups toward Israeli policies on this issue represent a marked turnabout from the early 1980s.

Then, the AAEJ was so loud and unabashedly critical of the Israeli government, for its perceived inaction regarding the plight of the Ethiopian Jews, that the NACOEJ was formed as a more moderate, establishment body.

The suspicions of the AAEJ regarding the Israeli government’s intentions were based on long experience.

The organization was founded in 1969 by Graenum Berger, a professional with the New York federation, after 15 years in which his interest in the Jews of Ethiopia found no response from the American Jewish community or the Israeli government.

At the time, the Israeli rabbinate had yet to decide that the Falashas, as the Jews of Ethiopia were known, were in fact Jewish.

“Our work was advocacy, to provoke Israel primarily, but also American and world Jewry to take on this responsibility of rescuing and bringing them to Israel,” said Berger.

In this cause, Berger repeatedly lobbied Israeli officials. Even after the chief rabbinate declared the Falashas to be Jewish, Israel made little effort to bring them in.

In America, AAEJ tried to get the issue on the communal agenda, organizing unofficial luncheons at communal events when they were denied space on the formal agenda. The group also raised the issue’s profile in Washington, a move that paid off handsomely during the Reagan years.

WORKED SECRETLY TO BRING JEWS OUT

And in Ethiopia itself, AAEJ began working clandestinely to bring out Jews to Israel.

In all of this, the AAEJ was more concerned with rescuing Ethiopian Jews than with making friends in the Jewish communal establishment.

“They were necessary nudniks,” said Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the JDC.

The AAEJ’s Shapiro recalls the period between 1977, when the Israeli government first accepted the right of the Ethiopian Jews to immigrate, and 1984, when Operation Moses took place, as “frenzied, controversial, unpleasant and argumentative, and much more difficult than we ever believed it could be.”

The controversy has not gone away. There is no consensus even today on the value of AAEJ’s actions at the time.

Did the group’s clandestine rescue efforts of several hundred Ethiopians show the way for the Israelis? Or did it interfere with the equally secret Israeli efforts, which brought out between 4,000 and 6,000 Jews by 1984?

The AAEJ again took matters, controversially, into its own hands in 1989. And the country’s civil war was raging in Gondar province, where most of the 20,000 remaining Jews lived.

“It was a completely lawless and chaotic time,” said Susan Pollack, an AAEJ activist in Ethiopia then.

So, against the urging of the JDC and the Jewish Agency, “We decided that if it was no longer possible to get to Gondar and help Ethiopian Jews survive there, we would get them out of Gondar, get them to Addis Ababa, and bring them to the doorstep of the world, and the Israeli government in particular.

“We thought it was the community’s only chance of survival, and history has proved us right.”

Soon after the AAEJ began bringing the Jews down to its compound in Addis Ababa, Israel and Ethiopia re-established diplomatic ties.

A moderately paced immigration was begun. Eventually, American pressure enabled Israel to carry out Operation Solomon, bringing the Jews out on the eve of the capital’s fall to rebel troops.

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