“We Demand the Immediate Emigration to Israel of All Ethiopian Jews”

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.
Headline from the New York Post, September 9, 1981
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.

Some of the 37 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants who made aliyah in 1979. HIAS president Edwin Shapiro is in the center.

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.

 

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What is Membership, really?

In the course of processing the archives of the HIAS Membership department over recent months, a few questions have echoed in my mind: Why does the agency solicit for membership, rather than just donations? Why is membership so important? What does it actually mean to be a HIAS member?

It seems that the answers may be related in part to HIAS’s institutional membership in Federation, and the Federation fund-raising structure designed to maximize effective giving and reduce competition among Jewish charities. The following records in the HIAS archives collection, dating to the 1980s and 90s, have helped me to understand this subject a little better.

(For more on the different types of membership campaigns run by the department, see this post.)

 

Member versus contributor

In 1984, newly appointed Executive Vice President Karl Zukerman investigated this topic (see bullet point seven):

 

 

Importance of membership

A 1980 letter from Annette Eskind and Walter Bieringer, co-chairs of the Membership Committee, discussed the “clout” a large membership brought the agency in its negotiations with government bodies:

 

 

Federation considerations

In a 1981 membership campaign report, Director of Fund Raising Hyman Brickman referred to membership campaigns versus other methods of bringing in money:

“While the timing of a campaign is dictated by the Federation, the timing of our request for a campaign is our own choosing. It should not be done while the allocations procedure is underway or an appeal for reconsideration has been filed, lest the community look upon its approval of a campaign as absolving it from giving us our request in full or considering supplementary funding. We must keep the two items separate and apply our maximum efforts to both.”

 

In the same report, Brickman provided an update on campaign prospects in a community that had not been solicited for membership recently. He described the situation this way:

“The community has not allocated to HIAS for many years, and this problem must first be addressed before we go further with membership, since the latter is intended to supplement the allocation and not be a substitute for it.”

 

In 1984, Manfred Weil, a Membership Committee member who for years ran a successful “personal campaign” for HIAS in Rhode Island, wrote to committee chair Eskind, stressing to taking care not to conflict with any Federation fund-raising efforts, “even though the appeal is only for membership.”  (see page two below)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A 1992 memo from Executive Vice President Martin Wenick to President Martin Kesselhaut referred to the distinction between fund-raising efforts and membership campaigns:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also included among the Membership records are these local Federation guidelines for independent and supplementary campaigns (see especially page two):

 

 

 

 

 

 

(HIAS membership dues were $50 annually, which is the same amount cited in these guidelines.)

 

Another Federation granted approval for a HIAS campaign to its members because the solicitation amount fell within a prescribed range:

 

What it means to be a member

Note: This subject relates to the question of what membership is all about, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Federation.

In 1984, Eskind, who conducted many successful “personal campaigns” for HIAS over a period of years, wrote to Brickman on the subject of membership benefits:

“As requested by you, my personal view on ‘membership benefits’ reflects the comments expressed at the last Board meeting. I do not believe that a group insurance or travel program will enhance membership. I do feel that a well-planned membership drive, appropriate for each community, will be far more productive.”

 

In the same 1985 membership campaign report cited earlier, Eskind gave a matter-of-fact description of membership (she was discussing campaign prospects in a region that already supported many active volunteer membership groups):

“It is hard to say whether: a) the community would respond to a ‘newcomer’ that is essentially a paper membership, b) the federation would authorize a campaign (their regular campaign has dropped considerably mainly because of a high unemployment rate, necessitating a cut in our allocation after it was made), and c) the federation would, if it did grant clearance, make its lists available. On the positive side is the fact that we have acquired two new Board members from the community. The issue will be explored further with them.”

 

If I come across any additional documents that shed light on this topic, I’ll be sure to do another post.

 

 

Sources

Collection: I-363 HIAS; Subseries: Development; Subsubseries: Membership; Subsubsubseries: Subjects.

  • The 1992 memo from Wenick to Kesselhaut may be found in the Federations—Campaign Permission Letter folder.
  • The Federation Guidelines for Campaigns document is in a folder titled Federations—Allocations.
  • All other documents are from the Membership Committee folder.

Search the HIAS Client Database

HIAS maintains an extensive archive of client files. Because of privacy issues, access is carefully restricted. If you would like to see a specific file, please contact the Location Department at HIAS.

However, there are certain fields within this data, which exists in paper, microfilm and electronic form, that the HIAS archives project has made available to the general public. We are very pleased to announce that the search page is now live. Please visit http://ajhs.org/hias-search and search for friends and relatives who may have registered with HIAS between about 1955 and 2000.

A few things to note:
  1. A search in this database will not provide access to the client files – but it will show that a file exists for a specific family or individual.
  2. This search is not exhaustive. If a name does not show up in the search results it does NOT mean there is no file for that person; it just means that they were not included in the data within the database. More information can be obtained from the Location Department at HIAS. Contact the Location Department also for people arriving prior to 1955 if their names do not appear in a search. (Several thousand names are included in this database with arrival dates as early as the 1940s, and a handful from the 1930s.)
  3. For people arriving in the United States under the auspices of HIAS or registering with HIAS during approximately 1955-1980, click on the “Master Index Card Search” tab. For those arriving or registering during approximately 1980-2016, click on the “HIAS Database Search” tab.
  4. The Master Index Card Search includes a pdf of each family, and may provide additional detail including sponsoring family members and their addresses, often a maiden name for the wife, and names of accompanying children.
  5. The database may also prove to be a useful research tool for quick statistics on where people were arriving from in a given year, for example, or how many people from a specific country.

Enjoy the search!

Dr. Henry Shoskes in Latin America, 1947

In the ten or so years following the end of WWII, Dr. Henry Shoskes was the HIAS Overseas Representative to Latin America and other parts of the world where Jews were able to resettle legally.

Our HIAS files include a few of Shoskes’ files in his role as Overseas Representative for HIAS, from about 1947-1956. Included are folders on Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and Latin America. Most of the correspondence in these folders is between Shoskes and others in the New York office of HIAS while he was traveling, and with representatives of the Jewish communities in the countries he visited.

In his folder “Latin America – Memoranda and Reports”, there is a printed memorandum addressed “To: Everyone”, issued by HIAS in New York, with statistics on immigration-related activities for 1946 and 1947; because there is very little information in our HIAS collection from this early, we are saving every scrap:

1947 statistics on immigration
1947 statistics on immigration

Clipped to the memo above is a handwritten notation from Shoskes titled, “The Story Behind the Figures”, with totals by country:

The Story Behind the Figures - statistics from Latin America, 1947
The Story Behind the Figures – statistics from Latin America, 1947

One of the few other sources of information from the post-war years in our HIAS collection are in the annual reports. Checking in the 1947 annual report, in addition to the statistics listed in the memorandum, is a statement of income and expenses – which reveals a deficit of $685,357.54. “The deficit tells the story of the extreme urgency of the work that HIAS was called upon to do.” Adding to the deficit situation was the  knowledge that the following year, 1948 would again “throw a burden of unparalleled magnitude upon HIAS”, including the resettlement of Jews from Europe as well as those in North African countries, whose situations were exacerbated by the November 29, 1947 vote in the United Nations to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, and the proposed establishment of the state of Israel.

Many HIAS officers, board members and professional staff were thanked in the president’s report in the 1947 annual report, including “Dr. Henry Shoskes, who undertook an arduous mission to South America, where they succeeded in obtaining promises from governments in those countries for a more liberal interpretation of their immigration laws. All of them have ably and unselfishly labored to make HIAS a harbinger of good tidings to the sorely troubled Jews overseas.”

The Shoskes files are a rare early glimpse into HIAS activities in the years after WWII. The bulk of the records in our HIAS collection begin in 1954 with the merger of HIAS with United Service for New Americans (USNA) and the migration department of the Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC). HIAS files prior to, during and immediately after World War II can be found in the collections of YIVO.

HIAS is here to assist you!

Moving to a new neighborhood where you don’t know many people? Often difficult.
Moving to a new country where you don’t know anyone? Always overwhelming.

In an effort to make the immigrant transition into the US more seamless, HIAS printed many pieces of literature over the years* to provide easy-to-use checklists for efficiently tackling various legal processes. The existence of these pamphlets might seem standard, but having accessible, concise steps to immigration success means fewer mistranslated notes, awareness of deadlines, and a better understanding of the help that’s available.

Refugee Policy

Inside, HIAS outlines the official Application Process and the steps that the Washington Processing Center takes when reviewing applications, including lengthy, detailed information on:

  • What’s included on the Preliminary Questionnaire
  • What’s included when asked to fill out an Affidavit of Relationship

What happens after your INS interview

So now that someone has had their INS interview and has been granted either refugee or parole status, HIAS is here to make sure that all the proper steps are taken BEFORE immigrating to the US.

This includes:

  • Completing your first appointment wiht IOM/MPC staff
  • Arranging for a medical examination
  • Obtaining sponsorship (refugees only) and exit permissions from OVIR
  • Making travel arrangements and organizing with your US relatives (if any) to notify the US of your arrival
  • Making a second appointment with IOM/MPC once you are ready to travel

You’ve made it! Here’s how HIAS can help!

HIAS’ help didn’t end with immigrants finding sanctuary on US soil, and didn’t end with immigrants, either! Help was available for both travelers and their US relatives and included:

  • General advice and counsel to both immigrants and their US family members
  • Help with making document corrections, alterations, and replacements (if originals are lost)
  • VISA petition assistance
  • Expediting VISA applications for relatives left in your home country
  • Green card, citizenship, and asylum applications
  • Taking photographs and fingerprints for legal documentation
  • Translation services
  • Specialized legal representation at no cost/minimal cost
  • Scholarship programs (for HIAS-assisted refugees who migrated to the US after 1977)
  • And a handy wallet guide!

*All pamphlets in this post were included in a packet designed for the attendants of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, 1992.

 

Types of Membership Campaigns

During the 1980s and 1990s, the HIAS Membership department conducted a variety of mailings every year to solicit contributions from new and existing members.

 

Membership campaigns are important because they are a source of revenue and because a strong membership base strengthens our voice.

-from a Membership committee report

 

There were two different types of campaigns:

  1. Board member / Membership department joint campaigns
  2. Membership department-only campaigns

Let’s take a closer look.

 

Board member / Membership department joint campaigns

These types of campaigns were commonly referred to at HIAS as “Board member campaigns,” but that name is a little misleading because it implies the board member ran the campaign or was in charge of the campaign. In fact, these campaigns were run by the Membership department with the assistance of a board member. The Membership department would get the campaign going, draft a solicitation letter, work with a printing firm on the letter and inserts, manage the mailing list, send out thank yous, and bear the costs.

Board members varied in terms of how much assistance they provided for their campaigns. Some got very involved, running through multiple drafts of the campaign letter, weighing in on various details of the mailing, strategizing with staff on how to get better returns, passing valuable information to HIAS, requesting regular updates on how the campaign was doing, and analyzing the results. Other board members did little more than provide their signature for the bottom of the letter.

  

There were four kinds of Board member / Membership department joint campaigns:

  1. Federation
  2. Personal
  3. Synagogue
  4. Trade / Professional

In 1994, a committee of the board described the campaigns in a report:

  • “Running a Federation membership campaign is not difficult; basically it involves encouraging your local federation to allow a campaign – the [HIAS] office does all the work. If it is not possible to do a federation campaign,
  • A personal campaign can also be effective – you just need to submit a list of names to the [HIAS] office – again, most of the work is done there.
  • Trade or business: Almost all of us are involved in a profession or business – obtaining a list of colleagues really should not be too hard, and is very productive.
  • A campaign through your Synagogue, asking permission of the Rabbi and generally following the same procedure as the other kinds of campaigns, is also very productive.”

 

Membership department-only campaigns

The Membership department also ran mailings on its own, without the involvement of board members. Here are some of the kinds of campaigns they ran:

  1. HIAS clients
  2. Lapsed members
  3. Big Givers (over $250)
  4. Holidays: Chanukah, Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashana
  5. National Council
  6. New York UJA
  7. Gift Membership

These campaigns tended to be larger and more lucrative than Board member / Membership department joint campaigns.

 

Archival documents referenced in this post may be found under Development—Membership—Subjects in the folder “Membership Campaign Reports and Records, 1976-1996.” 

The 1993 Los Angeles Membership Campaign

The HIAS Membership Department was responsible for running fundraising appeals through the mail. These fundraising appeals were known at the agency as membership campaigns. In today’s blog post, we’ll take a look at what was involved in organizing and executing a campaign, using the records of the 1993 Los Angeles appeal as a kind of case study.

 

In June of 1993, Carolyn Agress, Director for Membership Services & Women’s Division, wrote to HIAS board member Judith Sommerstein to follow up on their conversation at the recent Annual Meeting.  It seems they had discussed membership campaigns, with Sommerstein expressing interest in participating.

In the letter, Agress explained how these campaigns worked:

  • The Membership Department would first provide the board member with a copy of the solicitation letter (the “ask”) for that year.
  • The board member would edit the solicitation letter if they saw fit, in order to tailor it to the concerns and issues of their community. The final version would be signed by the board member.
  • The board member would provide HIAS with the names and addresses of personal and professional contacts they wanted to solicit.
  • HIAS would add these names to the list of members in the board member’s geographical region.
  • HIAS would have the letters printed and sent out, along with a membership dues form and a return envelope.

Letter from Agress to Sommerstein:


This appears to be the solicitation letter Agress included, sent back with Sommerstein’s comments on front and back:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The records include memos and notes about the logistics of carrying out the campaign, such as this one dated August 18, 1993:

On August 19th, Agress sent Sommerstein another copy of the solicitation letter, which Sommerstein sent back with comments:

 

 

 

 

 

 

(It was not typical that HIAS would request comments on the solicitation twice; this seems to be an aberration, or we may just not have all the information about what happened.)

This appears to be the final draft of the text:

The letters that actually went out included the name and address of the member, as well as a personal salutation, as in the earlier draft. HIAS provided the printing company with a copy of the board member’s signature to place in the closing.

In September, the Membership Department sent Sommerstein an update on the results of the campaign. Many of the campaign files contain computer reports on how the campaign did, and sometimes multiple updates would be sent to the board member, but for Los Angeles in 1993, there’s just this one:

The last step was for the Membership Department to send thank you letters for the donations, whether from a new or renewing member.

Then the next year, the whole process would be repeated, with the board member adding new names to their list, and often crossing out those of any friends who had passed away. Not all board members participated in campaigns year after year, but many did. Those records are very interesting for learning about board members’ devotion to the mission of HIAS, the relationships of mutual respect they developed with Carolyn Agress and other staff, and the tireless efforts to craft the most effective “asks” possible.

 

Archival documents referenced in this post may be found in the 104 Los Angeles campaign files under Development—Membership—Campaigns. Final box number will most likely be 0297.