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Issues at the CJF Assembly

November 20, 1979
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Of the dozens of issues discussed at the five-day General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) which ended here yesterday, the plight of the Jews of Ethiopia (Falashas) and the problems of Sephardic Jews in Israel and in the diaspora created the most ferment and passion among the 2600 Jewish communal leaders from the United States and Canada attending the Assembly.

The plight of the Falashas was presented with eloquence and poignancy to the gathering by Yona Bogole, the leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community for the last 50 years, who was allowed to leave his native land less than three weeks ago.

He urgently appealed to the assembled leadership and to the Jewish community at large to increase efforts being made in Israel and elsewhere to rescue the 25,000 Jews who remain trapped in Ethiopia. The 72-year-old Falasha leader related how current events in Ethiopia make massive emigration of the Falashas to Israel a master of highest priority.

“We have been killed, sold into slavery, forced to convert to other religions and physically threatened even unto this day amongst unspeakable conditions in a country which is caught between war, revolution and terrible changing conditions, ” Bogole said.

Continuing, he stated: “We were once 250,000 people. Now we are less than 25,000. Time is against us. Every year, every month, every day we lose our young people to war, to discrimination and to persecution. We cannot sustain much more such losses and it the Jewish people in America and throughout the world and in Israel do not act quickly to help us come to Israel then God forbid that perhaps in five or 10 years we might disappear.”


He said that he and his son, Zecharias Yana, who recently completed the first North American speaking tour by an Ethiopian Jew and who accompanied his father to the Assembly, “have come here to tell you about how we — the Jews of Ethiopia — the Beta Yisrael want to rejoin the Jewish people. We want to tell you that we want to come to Israel to live a Jewish life with other Jews in Israel. Ethiopian Jews want to come to Jerusalem — to Yiserushalayem.”

Bogole said he was very encouraged by the Knesset announcement last Wednesday that Israel will now speak out publicly on the plight of the Falashas in Ethiopia and for their struggle to come to Israel. “We ask you in America — in the American Jewish community — those of you who are here tonight to take home a message that we want you to make our problems a number one priority, to help us in Ethiopia and to help us leave,” Bogole declared.

At a workshop earlier, Dan Shapiro, chairman of the Ethiopian Jewry Task Force for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, announced plans for a massive educational campaign among American Jews on the desperate situation facing the Falasha community. Leon Dulzin, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, who addressed the same session as Bogole, also stressed the need for a stepped-up campaign to bring Ethiopian, Jews to Israel.

The Assembly adopted a resolution, notable for its brevity, some 70 words, compared to a 400-word resolution on the Indochinese refugees, noting that the Falashas “are currently in danger of physical and spiritual disintegration. We recognize the urgency of this issue and re-affirm our commitment to seek to ameliorate their plight and to the rescue and aliya of Ethiopian Jewry. We give our full support to the efforts being made by the State of Israel and others on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry.


The situation of the Sephardic Jews was also brought forcefully to the attention of the Assembly in a series of printed statements, in a resolution and in an angry confrontation with Dulzin at an unscheduled meeting he agreed to attend after spokesmen for the Canadian Sephardic Federation complained bitterly, that no room had been made on the Assembly’s agenda for them to discuss their grievances.

Led by Joseph Benarrosh, president of the Federation which claims that there are 24,000 Sephardic Jews in Montreal and 5000 in Toronto, and Charles Chocron, the Federation’s immediate past president, members of the Federation issued a plea for concrete action to assure the survival of Sephardic culture in North America and in Israel.

In a leaflet widely distributed to the delegates, the Federation stated “that since the creation of the Israeli State, Sephardic Oriental Jews have been condemned to a second class citizen status.” It noted that all Israeli institutions “are and have always been dominated by the Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews were led to believe that they were in subtle ways less equipped to deal with modernity than their Ashkenazic brothers.”

The leaflet also stated that the leaders of North American Jewry “are responsible to a great extent for this unacceptable situation. You have supported economically, politically and ideologically the Israeli State policies without exerting sufficient pressure to force and impose a real social change in Israel.”


During an hour-long public meeting with Dulzin, which was frequently marked by shouting matches between the Sephardic representatives and Dulzin, the entire list of their grievances were repeated in full. Several Sephardic spokesmen noted that although their brethren in countries such as France, the United States and Canada were successful businessmen, lawyers and doctors, their brethren in Israel had been unable to attain similar positions. One said: “If we are good for cannon fodder, then why aren’t we permitted to benefit in the society we help to defend?”

Dulzin pointed but that the Sephardim, in their written and oral statements to the Assembly exaggerated the situation in Israel, that the government was doing all it can to ameliorate the conditions of the Sephardim and that the insistence on describing Israel as a dichotomous Ashkenazic/Sephardic society was erroneous. “There are no Sephardim and no Ashkenazim in Israel,” Dulzin declared. “There are only Jews in Israel.”


The resolution submitted on behalf of the Sephardic Federation by the Allied Jewish Community Services of Montreal, acknowledged “a social disintegration of the large majority of Sephardic Jews in Israel and the growing social gap is threatening the unity and stability of the Jewish State.”

The resolution urged that concrete steps be token in the diaspora to strengthen the relationship between Ashkenazim and Sephardim “and work jointly to combat assimilation, disseminate Sephardic culture widely among Ashkenazim and Sephardim encourage and support the advancement of those Sephardic organizations in local communities and nationally which aim to preserve and enhance Sephardic culture and which develop a sense of Jewish unity with all other groups in the community.”

Recording Israel, the resolution urged greater educational opportunities for the Sephardim; teaching about Sephardic contributions to Jewish history, literature, arts and sciences; improving housing conditions; and encouraging Sephardic families to develop culturally, socially and economically.

Lastly, the resolution called for the immediate establishment of a CJF Committee on Sephardic Problems “to determine ways and means of implementing the above objectives” and that “consideration should be given by future General Assembly program committees to include subjects related to Sephardic needs in Israel and the diaspora.”

Another event, also unscheduled, which drew wide attention at the Assembly, was a meeting of representatives of the Israeli Peace Now movement, convened under the sponsorship of Leonard Fein, editor of Moment magazine; Dr. Irving Greenberg, director of the National Jewish Resource Center in New York City, and Prof. Allen Pollack, chairman of the Labor Zionist Alliance and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.


The New York Times, which routinely insists on describing a discussion in the Jewish community as a debate, a debate as a rift, a rift as a confrontation, and a confrontation as a civil war, went for broke on this meeting and in its edition yesterday described the meeting with a four-column headline as, “North American Jews Widen Debate on Israeli Policy.” This was neither actual nor factual.

Some 300 delegates attended the meeting which could, at best, be described as tepid and uninspired. In fact, the Peace Now representatives from Israel appeared to be overly cautious, innocuous and conservative in their statements. Its importance was less in the presentations of Peace Now views or that of its opponents than in the fact that a year ago such a meeting would either not have been held or if held would have produced fireworks.

Many of the statements made by the Peace Now representatives from Israel, could very well have been accepted by members of the Begin government. For example, Gary Brenner of Israel, asserted: “It is up to the (Israel) government to determine, through the negotiation process, what the components of peace will be, and what accommodations will have to be made.”

But, he continued, “we believe that we must be willing and eager to talk with any potential partner in that process, with the precondition: (1) renunciation of terrorism, and (2) recognition of the State of Israel as a sovereign state.”

Orly Lubin, also from Israel, stated: “We acknowledge our right to Judaea and Samaria. But the reality is that when others make, similar claims, right ought to give way to compromise if the result, over the long term, is a secure peace, leading to the stability of the region.” Even the most vociferous opponents of the Peace Now movement contented themselves by pointing out that the Peace Now view was undercutting Israel.

Certainly a far cry from The New York Times report that the debate was widening. At best the meeting indicated, in the words of Fein, “a broadening and a new openness in the range of opinion and expression” among American Jews.

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