This blog post is the first of several posts about HIAS and Ethiopian Jewry.
HIAS, the Jewish Defense League, and Ethiopian Jewry
A Brief History of the Jewish Community in Ethiopia
The Ethiopian Jewish community may descend from the Tribe of Dan, one of the ten so-called “lost” tribes, and could have originated as long ago as the break-up of the United kingdom of Israel, circa 1020 to 930 B.C.E., or the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., or the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. Based on various medieval responsa concerning Ethiopian Jews, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the newly-elected Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, ruled in 1973 that the Beta Israel were Jews and should be brought to Israel. He was later joined in this ruling by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. On March 14, 1977, Israeli officials decided that the Israeli Law of Return applied to the Beta Israel.
The Ethiopian Civil War began on September 12, 1974 when the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army, known as the “Derg,” (which means “committee” in Ge’ez), a Marxist-Leninist group, staged a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie. The civil war lasted until 1991, when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of rebel groups, overthrew the government, by which point at least 1.4 million Ethiopians had died. Insurrections against Derg rule were particularly violent in the northern regions of Eritrea and in Tigray, one of the regions, along with Amhara, where the Beta Israel were centered.
Since Israel did not have full diplomatic relations with Ethiopia, which was surrounded by several member countries of the Arab League, and since the Communist Derg government officially banned Beta Israel immigration to Israel, any rescue operations had to be done secretly. The Mossad contacted Sudanese officials, who allowed thousands of Beta Israel into refugee camps on the Ethiopia-Sudan border, with the understanding that they would be ultimately taken to Israel. Hundreds, possibly thousands, died on the walk to these camps, which often took up to a month. Conditions were poor and many in the camps, which at one point housed one million refugees, died of disease, thirst, and hunger. Possibly between 2,000 and 5,000 of those who died in the camps were Jews. Between 1977, when Israel recognized Beta Israel as subject to the Right of Return, and 1984, when the first airlifts to Israel began, approximately 8,000 Beta Israel immigrants traveled from camps in Sudan to Israel by boats belonging to the Israeli Navy, by airplane, or on foot. Of these 8,000, only half survived the journey, due to disease, hunger, and violence along the route.
HIAS and the Beta Israel
The issue of the Falashas, or Beta Israel, was a thorny one and most of the progress that was made was done in secret and at a very high government level. HIAS, as a member organization of the American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service (ACVA) and of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), was involved in some of the rescue activities, starting in 1977 and continuing into early 1980’s. However, it was a race against time.
Numerous Ethiopian Jews, as well as international aid workers, were jailed, tortured, and killed for attempting to emigrate and international attention on the plight of the Beta Israel only seemed to inflame the issue further. Rallies and protests were held and aid organizations were formed in the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Public debate raged regarding the policy of “quiet diplomacy” counseled by Israeli leaders and the Jewish Agency and newspaper articles and editorials argued both for and against increased pressure on Israel and World Jewry. The public accused American Jewry, and HIAS in particular, of ignoring the problem and allowing another Holocaust. According to NJCRAC statistics, between 1,000 and 1,100 Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Israel from 1980-1981, but that still left 25,000 remaining in a precarious situation. It would be three more years until the first airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.