Here's something you didn't learn in Hebrew school…
How Israel was pushed into doing Operation Moses.
What you'll read below is one of a several things that pushed Israel to rescue Ethiopian Jews. Perhaps soon I'll post on others.
Simcha is profiled in today's English-language Web version of Ha'aretz. It's a nice profile but it has some irritating mistakes (including Ha'aretz translating "North American Jewish Students Network" as "North American Jewish Student Alliance").
But there is also very much good (if you can decipher Ha'aretz's errors), including this bit of history you won't learn from your local rabbi or Federation [everything in bold type surrounded by square brackets [ ] is my commentary]:
…It was the late 1970s, a very stormy period on Canadian campuses. There were demonstrations against the Iron Curtain and calls for freeing Soviet Jewry on the one hand, and extensive fundraising for Israel, which had suffered a harsh blow in the 1973 war, on the other. Slowly, and somewhat overshadowed by these events, news on the situation of Ethiopian Jewry also began trickling in.
"The government of Israel didn't take any interest in them," Jacobovici remembers. "I couldn't understand that: Black Jews are being killed, raped and harmed, yet the Jewish People is remaining silent."
He decided to act, but the ideology of the Student Alliance [i.e., North American Jewish Students Network] did not support him. [This is another Ha'aretz error. Network not only supported Simcha, we founded the Canadian Association for Ethiopian Jews and ran an ongoing nationwide Ethiopian Jewry campaign in the US. Simcha is criticizing then-UJA-Federation leadership, not Network, as the next sentence makes clear.] "The message was to 'go raise money and donate it to Israel,'" he relates. "The Jewish community suppressed us. [I.e., the Jewish community suppressed the Jewish Students Network.] No one wanted to hear difficult questions."
The Mossad confiscates
Jacobovici decided he would not keep quiet. Parallel to his political activity, he became an investigative journalist, and in 1980 and 1981, published three articles in The New York Times about the situation of Ethiopian Jews. [There was also an article in 1984. Simcha pitched an op ed to the Times. The Times asked Simcha to find another author because Simcha had already written on the issue too many often. Simcha asked me to do it, and I agreed. I rewrote Simcha's piece and added new material. Later, to make sure the maximum impact was made and that nothing was left out, we spent almost two hours editing each other on the phone, Simcha in Toronto, me in Saint Paul - calls to Canada then more than $1.00 per minute, neither of us with any money. The Times agreed to run the new piece under my name and slotted it. I was then contacted by a 'representative' of the Israeli government who conveyed a message: Pull the piece. If I agreed to pull it, the Israelis promised they would get clean drinkable water into the Sudanese refugee camps where Ethiopian Jews were hiding. After much soul searching, I made the wrong decision – I pulled the piece, conditional on that water getting into Um Rakuba and other camps. The Times ran the piece under Simcha's name. The Times told me I was being hondled by the Israelis. They were right. No water arrived. No water purification systems arrived. Nothing arrived – except death. ] He says he wanted to spread a message "that didn't interest anyone, because Africa is far away."
In 1981 he borrowed a book on documentary filmmaking, raised a few thousand dollars and set out with a crew to the refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. During the trip, he suffered from malaria, was bitten by a poisonous spider and nearly lost a leg - but he returned to Israel with dozens of hours of footage that documented the difficult situation of the Jews in Africa.
At the airport, several Mossad agents were waiting for him. "Just a few weeks earlier I had taken out a book of basic instructions for filming and all of a sudden I'm sitting in the Prime Minister's Office, shivering with malaria, facing the head of the Mossad who is explaining to me that he is confiscating the material I had filmed because I am doing damage to Israel."
The material was released after Jacobovici threatened to tell an international news conference about the confiscation, and it later became a film that won an honorable mention in a pre-Academy Award ceremony in 1985. According to The Economist, the film footage was one of the factors that prompted Israel to decide to bring over the Ethiopian Jews. …
The profile also discusses the film business, Simcha's recent move to Israel, his family's survival in the Holocaust, and more.
Here's an earlier piece I wrote for the Minneapolis StarTribune on Ethiopian Jewry. It was written in early June 1984 and published on 6-26-1984. While I caught flack for writing this, the irritation level was much lower than a New York Times piece would have been.
I was also careful to identify myself as a committee chairperson rather than as the chair of the entire US section of Network, a position I also held. As strange as this seems to Americans, student politics was then (and still is now) a big deal in Israel and in many European countries, and the difference between a committee chair and a country chair is significant.
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