The Forward has a review of the new Stephen Spector book, "Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue Of Ethiopian Jews." (Oxford, 2005.)
The Forward gave the review to Amir Shaviv, a former Israeli TV newscaster now Assistant Executive VP of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Shaviv's organization – lauded in Spector's book – has long been hostile to efforts to rescue Ethiopian Jews. And so, Shaviv writes:
Was the danger in the Beta Israel villages so compelling that it justified moving an entire population? In his meticulous forensic style, Spector destroys, one by one, each argument given at the time for the exodus of Ethiopian Jews from their villages: "Contrary to claims being made in the West...There was no significant famine in the Jewish area...Nor did they leave because they were in a war zone...No Jewish villagers had been caught in military crossfire...Their Christian neighbors did not drive them out...They did not leave because of illness, either."
The chapters that touch upon this issue are uncomfortable to read. It is a harsh suggestion that the plot against Ethiopian Jews was not just the making of evil dictators, but possibly originated from a misguided, although idealistic intervention of North American Jewish advocates. Was it a recurrent case of the white Ugly American who knows better what is good for native black Africans? Spector lets this issue surface into the dramatic narration every once in a while. He does it tactfully, sensitive to the sensational potential of such accusations. Nevertheless, his book ought to trigger a humbling soul-searching among all nongovernmental organizations that face a similar situation in Third World countries every day. An honest attempt to revisit this period by American Jewish advocacy groups may be the best contribution of this book.
In other words, taking Spector's 'facts' at face value, the express desire of the Ethiopian Jews themselves to come to Israel and to be reunited with their families that escaped during the 1984-85 rescues, and the Israeli government's express desire that this take place, is of no standing. While it is easy to disregard Israel's public position on the matter – years of history has shown that public position to be in discord with the private realities of government there – disregarding the desire of a people that quite literally left everything they had and walked hundreds of miles so the messiah could take them to Jerusalem is a crime against all Israel and Judaism stand for.
My first contact with the JDC came in 1981. My local Federation sent a fundraising brochure. The brochure listed the various organizations donations were disbursed to, and what they were being used for. The JDC, the brochure noted, had given an ambulance to the Jewish community of Ethiopia. Knowing that most Ethiopian Jews lived in remote mountain villages often not accessible by anything other than donkeys or, sometimes, jeeps, I wondered how the shiny new ambulance in the picture would serve them. So, I called the Federation and challenged it to prove the ambulance was donated, and that it was functional. The Federation checked, challenged the JDC to document its information, and found what I had suspected: The ambulance had been donated to a non-sectarian clinic in Addis Ababa, far from the Jewish villages and the main populations of Ethiopian Jews to the north. While an occasional Jew may have benefited from the ambulance, the vast majority of users were not Jewish.
In other words, the JDC was raising money for Ethiopian Jews but allocating the funds elsewhere, under the flimsy pretext that, if one or two Jews benefit, then it's 'kosher' to do so. This at a time of great starvation and persecution of Ethiopian Jews.
Years later I met a senior JDC medical employee who dealt extensively with Ethiopia. He had little regard for Ethiopian Jews – or their Jewishness. (The employee is connected to haredi elements in Jerusalem.)
The larger issue has always been the various splits in the Israeli government and intelligence community with regard to the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. The Israeli view has never been monolithic and often two (or three) competing camps fought for and against rescue, using well-meaning groups – from the American Association for Ethiopian Jews to the Federations and the Joint – as pawns in that struggle.
Today, the issue is shaping the history of these rescues to justify the (in)actions of the various camps. In part this is true because of the desire to be viewed as righteous. But, most importantly it is about limiting or stopping entirely the immigration of other claimants to "lost tribe" status. Israel does not want to deal with third world immigrants without marketable skills. The question is how to shut the doors without appearing to be racist or insensitive to the founding goals of the Jewish state. To do this, most of all Israel needs to control – or neutralize – activist groups that have influence with the Federations and the US government. That is what Spector's book – and Mitchell Bard's book that preceded it – and Amir Shaviv's review are about.
Why the Forward let itself be used in this way is a question that still needs to be answered.