The Ingathering of Exiles

How the North American Jewish Federation System helped thousands immigrate to Israel.

October 5, 2008 09:35
4 minute read.
The Ingathering of Exiles

Aliya 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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As Europe exploded around them, some 70,000 Jews succeeded in fleeing Hitler's inferno thanks to "illegal" immigration to Israel known as aliyah bet. As in the well-known case of the Exodus, world Jewry played an in indispensable role in this, and other, efforts to rescue Jews from certain death under the Nazis. But the Jewish federation world's involvement in aliyah (immigration to Israel) did not end with the Holocaust. In fact, it has never ended. Since World War II, UJC and the Jewish Federations of North America have, in conjunction with other Jewish organizations including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Keren HaYesod, undertaken several massive aliyah programs, beginning with the absorption of the Jews of North Africa in the 1950s, which was spearheaded in the legendary Operation Magic Carpet (officially known as Operation Wings of Eagles), in which some 50,000 Jews from Yemen were flown to the fledgling State of Israel between 1949 and 1950. Fast-forward several decades to the early 1980s, when Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism, jailing many of its Jews on false charges of spying for Israel. Compounding the difficulties for Ethiopian Jewry, the country suffered through a number of devastating famines during this period. Desperate to leave Ethiopia for the promise of better lives in Israel, large numbers of Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, migrated to eastern Sudan in 1984, where they took shelter in refugee camps as they awaited transport to Israel. Although some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews made it to Eretz Yisrael between the 1970s and 1984, more than 4,000 died on the journey to the Sudanese camps or once they got there. Aware that the situation in the camps was dire and deteriorating, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized Operation Moses, a secretive airlift that brought some 8,000 more Jews out of Ethiopia to Israel in about six weeks, hurrying the return of this "Lost Tribe" to their homeland after thousands of years. UJC was intimately involved in the operation, the first large-scale rescue of Ethiopian Jews, in which the Israeli Air Force flew packed planes of the Beta Israel to the Jewish state, breaking world records for the number of people crammed into a single 747 jumbo jet. "The operation was sponsored by the federations of North America," says Yitzchak Shavit, who oversees fund-raising for UJC's overseas projects. "If not for the federations, what would have happened?" In 1991 during another particularly unstable time in Ethiopia, Israel airlifted another 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over the course of just 36 hours in a mission known as Operation Solomon. A total of 34 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130s - seats removed to accommodate the maximum number of Ethiopians - began non-stop flights that continued for 36 hours to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Addis. A total of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews were rescued and resettled in Israel. The Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir authorized a special permit for the Israeli airline, El Al, to fly on the Jewish Sabbath. Later, UJC was intimately involved in the enormous (and enormously successful) aliyah of Jews from the former Soviet Union, not to mention the rescue of Jews from Albania, Syria and Sarajevo. The North American federation world's constant involvement in aliyah-from pre-state days through today-is a crystal-clear indication of just how seriously its members take the issue of kibbutz galuyot, or the ingathering of exiles, particularly those who find themselves in harm's way. Learn more about UJC and the Jewish Federations of North America at the UJC General Assembly, this November 16-19 in Israel, when 3,000 Jews from North America and Israel join together to mark Israel's 60th anniversary with events in historic Jerusalem and cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, plus inspirational visits to the North and South to see UJC/Federation-supported programs. For more information about UJC, the Federations of North America and the General Assembly, please visit United Jewish Communities (UJC) represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. UJC seeks to lead this bold continental system in mobilizing financial and social resources through philanthropic endeavors, strategic initiatives and international agencies, to protect and strengthen the lives of Jews in North America, Israel and around the world. UJC is driven by the traditional Jewish values of chesed (caring and compassion), Torah (Jewish learning), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (social justice). Chanan Tigay has covered the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Jerusalem bureau ofAgence France-Presse and the aftermath of 9-11 for AFP and United Press International. He has contributed to publications ranging from Newsweek to The Wall Street Journal; from the San Francisco Chronicle to The Jerusalem Report; and from JTA to the Forward. Among others, he has interviewed Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres, along with Sens. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Joe Lieberman. He lives in San Francisco.

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