On Sunday, February 6, 1983, brothers Zyama Volfson (80) and Samuel Wolfe (somewhere between 86 and 88) were reunited at Miami International Airport for the first time in over 70 years. They had not seen each other since Samuel Wolfe had left Bobruisk, Russia (now in Belarus) at the age of 16, when his brother was still a young child. This was in either 1911 or 1913, according to different sources. When he arrived in the United States, Samuel “Americanized” his name to Wolfe. He worked in various construction jobs, at breweries, restaurants, stockyards, factories, coal mines, and as a door-to-door salesman all around the eastern and mid-western parts of the country before settling in Chicago as a taxi driver in the 1920’s.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 8, 1983
Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1983
Zyama stayed in Russia, through World Wars I and II, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of Communism, until his wife died in 1980. He then decided to emigrate to the United States with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. After settling in Brooklyn in 1981, Volfson decided to seek out his brother, knowing only that he lived near Chicago. He sought help from the New York office of HIAS, which helped put Volfson in touch with the Chicago office of HIAS. The Chicago office placed an ad in the Sentinel, an English-language Jewish newspaper in Chicago, in December 1982.
Wolfe’s daughter, Hodele Markowitz, saw the ad and contacted her father, who by then was spending most of his time in Miami Beach, Florida. Markowitz set up a brief telephone call between the brothers, after which she planned an in-person reunion. Zyama Volfson flew to Miami with his daughter-in-law, Lyudmila, to meet his brother, with whom he had lost touch 70 years before.
The charming story caught the attention of various newspapers in New York and Chicago, as well as several local morning television news programs. HIAS’ Chicago and New York offices also received their share of publicity, particularly from individuals looking to make their own family connections.
Barbara Mae Watson, a diplomat and the first African-American and the first woman to serve as an Assistant Secretary of State, was born in 1918 in New York City to Violet Lopez Wilson, one of the founders of the National Council of Negro Women, and James S. Watson, the first black judge elected in New York State. She received her B.A. from Barnard College in 1943. In 1946 she founded a modeling agency, Barbara Watson Models, the first African American modelling agency in New York City, serving as the agency’s executive director until 1956. She received her law degree from New York Law School in 1962, after which she worked as an attorney for three New York City government agencies: the Board of Statutory Consolidation of the City of New York, the Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, and was the director of the New York City Commission to the United Nations from 1964-1966, when her career at the State Department began. Barbara M. Watson’s relationship with HIAS soon after she joined the United States Department of State in 1966, where she formed a particularly close friendship with Gaynor I. Jacobson, HIAS’ Executive Vice President, who also started in his position in 1966.
She headed the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs from 1966-1974 and 1977-1980, serving under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. Barbara M. Watson was appointed ambassador to Malaysia in 1980, where she served until 1981, when she entered private law practice with two firms in Washington, D.C. which specialized in international law and business development and trade.
Watson’s work brought her into close contact with HIAS for many years and she also attended various HIAS lectures and conferences, including as the guest of honor at HIAS’ 88th annual meeting in 1972.
At the 1980 Annual Meeting, Gaynor I. Jacobson invited Watson as his personal guest in honor of his retirement, which took effect January 31, 1981. In a letter to Watson after the 1980 Annual Meeting, Jacobson included the below picture of Watson and her two “ardent admirers,” reflecting their long years of friendship.
In June 1977, President Hafez el-Assad of Syria approved a plan where 12 young Jewish women would take part in proxy marriages to members of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, whom the women had never met, after which they would be allowed to emigrate to the United States. This decision came after months of secret negotiations with Representative Stephen J. Solarz, whose congressional district covered the Ocean Parkway and Midwood sections of Brooklyn, where approximately 25,000 Jews of Syrian background lived at the time, as well as a personal plea to Assad by President Carter, which also was made at the bequest of Solarz.
After Syrian independence from France in 1946, the 1947 Partition Plan, and the 1948 founding of Israel, Jews in Syria faced terrible discrimination, including several deadly pogroms and riots. By the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, there were an estimated 5,000 Jews in Syria, down from 40,000-45,000 Jews in 1948. Jews could not work for the government or banks, own telephones or driver’s licenses, Jewish property and passports were seized, bank accounts were frozen, Jewish schools were closed, and the Jewish cemetery in Damascus was paved over. A 1964 law restricted Jews from traveling more than 5 kilometers from their hometowns. Jews who were allowed to leave for medical or business reasons had to leave behind money and family members as collateral. The three largest Jewish communities, in Damascus, Aleppo, and Kamishli, were placed under house arrest for eight months following the Six-Day War. Jews began escaping in secret, sometimes with help from abroad, even though the penalty for attempting to escape or helping someone to escape was either imprisonment with hard labor or death and any family members left behind could be imprisoned. Most of those who escaped were young single men, who wanted to be free to leave at short notice. As a result, by 1977, there were 500 unmarried Jewish women in their late teens and early 20s who had no marriage prospects within the Jewish community and who were not allowed to marry non-Jews.
Representative Solarz traveled to Damascus in December 1976, where he spoke with Jewish leaders as well as Syrian government officials. The Jewish community asked that Solarz help bring the young women to his district in Brooklyn, because of the strong Syrian Jewish community. Certain Syrian government officials told him they were sympathetic to letting the women leave, as long as they did not go Israel. Back in Brooklyn, Solarz contacted local Syrian Jews who started to raise funds and look for eligible young men, as well as staff from HIAS and NYANA (New York Association for New Americans), who helped find private homes for the women to stay in, where their “husbands” could visit, and set up English-language classes and jobs for the women.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance spoke with President Assad about the young women in February and in May 1977, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put Congressman Solarz in touch with President Carter, who then made a personal plea to the Syrian president in May. Assad eventually agreed to let 12 women leave through proxy marriages. Syrian yeshiva students from Brooklyn sent marriage proposals in June and in early July, Stephen Shalom and Michael Lewin, Solarz’s chief of staff, went to Damascus. The weddings occurred on July 19, 1977, and were conducted by the rabbi in the Damascus synagogue. Michael Lewin stood in for the absent grooms. At the same time, two other women were married in person to Americans who had come to Syria looking for wives. More than 500 people were present in the synagogue.
This blog post is the first of several posts about HIAS and Ethiopian Jewry.
HIAS, the Jewish Defense League, and Ethiopian Jewry
On the afternoon of September 8, 1981, approximately 15 members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a far-right religious-political organization, took over the main offices of HIAS in New York and forced the staff out, while barricading themselves inside. At the same time, 15 additional JDL members chained the front doors of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization-American Section building. These actions were done in protest of American Jewry’s perceived lack of action to rescue the estimated 25,000 Ethiopian Jews, also called Falashas, meaning “landless” or “wanderers,” or Beta Israel, “House of Israel,” then living in 500 remote mountainous villages in northern Ethiopia.
The JDL presented HIAS officials with two demands: that HIAS initiate an immediate rescue effort for the Ethiopian Jews, and that HIAS spearhead, as a priority, an awareness program about the plight of Ethiopian Jewry in conjunction with all Federations across the United States. Irving Haber, head of HIAS administration, agreed to bring the first demand to the next meeting of the HIAS board and also agreed to send telegrams to the Council of Jewish Federations and to four Federations.
The JDL members then left the building, having been inside for two hours.
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.
Early in his political career, Senator Edward M. Kennedy advocated for the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which changed the immigration quota system from one based on national origins to one based upon the immigrant’s skills and family connections to United States citizens or permanent residents. In the wake of this, a Protocol to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which had protected refugees crossing international borders who had suffered persecution in Europe prior to January 1, 1951, was signed on January 31, 1967.
The United States acceded to the Protocol on November 1, 1968 at a ceremony at the United Nations, which was attended by Gaynor I. Jacobson representing the United HIAS Service (UHS) and the American Council of Voluntary Agencies (ACVA). Jacobson was one of 45 representatives of American voluntary agencies, ethnic and immigration organizations, and labor unions who supported the United States’ accession to the Protocol.
The 1967 Protocol afforded refugee status without regard to the time or location of persecution. This was particularly important as new refugee situations continued to develop all over the world after 1951. HIAS would continue to take an active role in numerous subsequent refugee crises in the decades following the Protocol. Senator Kennedy was involved with issues and legislation related to immigration and refugees for his entire career and had a long correspondence with Gaynor I. Jacobson, HIAS’ Executive Vice President from 1966-1981, regarding this work, which can be traced through Jacobson’s professional correspondence.
Philip Bernstein was a Jewish communal professional for over sixty years, involved with numerous cultural, civic and philanthropic organizations. These included the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Jewish Appeal, and the local and national offices of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), where he served from 1934 until his death in 1995. From 1967 until his retirement in 1979, Bernstein was the Executive Vice President of CJF. HIAS has long benefitted from CJF’s financial assistance to support its daily operations and special projects. At Bernstein’s retirement party on September 15, 1979, numerous well-wishers came together to celebrate his long career and all that he had done in the field of Jewish communal service.
The festivities included a musical revue tribute during which executives of national Jewish aid and immigration organizations, as well as CJF officers, sang a song about collaboration between the various national agencies.
Gaynor I. Jacobson, the Executive Vice President of HIAS at the time, was invited to take part but he objected to the original version of the song as HIAS was not included.
While it is not clear how serious his protest was, organizers changed one of the couplets in the song to include HIAS so that Jacobson would take part.