Your Business: Ethiopia, Ethiopian Jews and Israel

Their travel guide was one of my Ethiopian Jewish former students who is now a serial entrepreneur living back in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian youth prepare the Seder in Gondar, Ethiopia (photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
Ethiopian youth prepare the Seder in Gondar, Ethiopia
(photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
There is much to criticize about Israel, but questioning its right to exist or the good Israel does for the Jewish people and others are not debates allowed in my university classes. My goal is to initiate and heighten the feeling of investment in Israel among Diaspora Jews. Here is but one reason. Israel’s seminal mission is to never leave behind a Jewish refugee. It has fulfilled the mission triumphantly. There are 65 million refugees worldwide in 2019, and no Jew is without a country to which to flee or to move by choice. Israel’s existence makes that certain. Moreover, even when there is a question about Jewish lineage, as currently in the case of some 6,000 people remaining in Ethiopia, we try harder to justify bringing them to Israel.
There are stories so inspiring they are worth making Hollywood movies about. Here is one from the annals of the Mossad. My students inspired me to learn more about the oracular adventure of Ethiopian Jews fraught with background.
Some of my international university students just returned from Ethiopia. The trip is optional for gap year students learning about the Jewish people. There is a backstory to the Ethiopian Jews returning home to Zion. The story is conflicted with Israel’s good intentions and courageous deeds while sorting a definition of who is a Jew.
Their travel guide was one of my Ethiopian Jewish former students who is now a serial entrepreneur living back in Ethiopia. “It’s not like anything in any country I’ve seen before,” one young woman from South Africa tells our class in Middle East politics.
And the students joined Ethiopians still living there in prayer with tallit and tefillin. The women dress modestly. They eat kosher, observe Shabbat and study Jewish texts with visiting rabbis, she told the class. But controversy exists in Israel over whether these remaining practicing Jews have any claim to Jewish lineage. Yet, despite that, Israel is bringing them to Zion because nobody gets left behind.
“Why don’t they bring the rest of [the Ethiopians] to Israel now?” asks another incredulous student. “There’s only a handful left and they told us their relatives are already here. It’s really wrong what Israel is doing.” Right or wrong, this young student gives short shrift to the nuances and definitions of “who is a Jew,” so perhaps some explaining is in order.

RACHEL SYLVETSKY, an editor at Arutz Sheva, on the other hand, has the first-hand experience in this field. She ran a youth village for 500 at-risk high schoolers in northern Israel, many from Ethiopia. For years, Rachel and dedicated staff put their hearts into absorbing teenage immigrants. While doing so, they learned the history, got to know their families and traditions, helped them write and perform original plays – sometimes laughing at themselves and sometimes looking for themselves. The youth village choir sang in Amharic and Hebrew. The entire village celebrated the Sigd holiday with Ethiopian foods and prayers. Everyone mourned on Jerusalem Day, which was set aside to memorialize the 4000 Ethiopian Beta Israel who died in the deserts walking to Sudan hoping to reach their longed-for “Yerusalem.”
Rachel proudly retells the successes of students who came through the open door of her home daily. They learned to pray and lead the daily prayers from her husband, and they learned to solve math problems with her. They would go on to become IDF officers, professionals and even a Miss Israel, without ever minimizing the difficulties they face.
“There is a vast difference between the Ethiopian Beta Israel who walked through Sudan in the first aliyah – one of whom I hired as the first Ethiopian oleh rabbi in the Israeli educational system – and the later Falash Mura who converted to Christianity decades ago for economic reasons,” Rachel explained. “Israel accepted them anyway and they underwent conversion as families because it was really hashava, ‘return to Judaism,’ the rabbinate decided, not conversion, but it was far from an easy decision. There were also Ethiopians who managed to falsify their personal information to come with them, and there was a need for care. No country can accept people without consideration, certainly not tiny Israel.” Those remaining in Ethiopia are being “returned” to Judaism by Israel to Zion on humanitarian grounds and offered the opportunity to undertake special conversions.

ISRAEL’S OPERATIONS Moses, Brotherhood and Solomon decamped nearly 100,000 exilic Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s. In thrilling adventures, the kind which books are written and Hollywood movies are made about, teams of Mossad agents, IDF members and civilians – with the help of the US and other countries – planned, organized and went deep into hostile nations of Ethiopia and Sudan. Sudan sent armies in 1948 and 1973 to fight against Israel. It was in Khartoum, following the Six Days War, that the Arab Summit rejected any peace with Israel. So, Mossad had to construct cover stories for its Operations.
Nothing stopped the Israelis or the Jewish Ethiopians. They walked across vast deserts to meet Israeli agents who packed them into the largest airplanes on earth and transported others aboard camouflaged ships. They bravely flew miles above and across unsuspecting African countries and waterways sandwiched between enemy Arab countries in their Return to Zion.
The stories about Operation Moses are engrossingly told in Mossad Exodus (Geffen Publishing House, 2018). Former Mossad agent Gad Shimron is an author with boots-on-the-ground experience. The inspiration came from then-newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin. Begin beseeched the Mossad chief, “I ask you to use the Mossad to find a way to bring these dear Jews to Israel. Bring the Ethiopian Jewry to me.”
 The Israelis needed a cover story. The Mossad purchased from Italians and remodeled a bankrupt tourist resort on the sea as cover for the true mission. They refurbished an abandoned, dusty airstrip. Both were staging areas to extricate the Ethiopians. But there were copses and thickets along the way and filthy lucre.
There are swashbuckling characters. One has the courage that borders on insanity. Field agents resent the big egos of their bosses that they find mendacious and petty. A Khartoum bar is the setting for intrigue like encounters reminding me of Bogart in Casablanca. “A couple of Hungarian musicians, a pianist and a violinist provided musical ambiance in the bar, which boasted the romantic name Sunset.” Then there are the peripatetic international agencies representatives, charity workers and Swedish nurses.

DESPITE PLANNING to the smallest detail, success is all about timing, preparedness, teamwork and mazel. Practice turns behaviors into habits and instinct. Unanticipated buggers make agents bite their nails to the quick. Things can turn bad for the most innocuous reasons and nearly scupper the operations:
• Avoid suspicious looking phone activity; it is best to stay in touch with headquarters calling “from the outhouse.”
• Sand dust eats away at mechanical devices, causing trucks to break down.
• Food storage and distribution equipment must be upgraded in the field, or famine lurks.
• Threaten the mission to medevac a young girl with a high fever.
• Chase an elderly woman who has run off into the desert fearful of the noise from the huge airplanes.
• Do not engage when a Sudanese unit fires a SAM missile at a Hercules transport plane and another launches a high-speed chase after the Mossad.
• A foreign aid worker starts talking in Hebrew to the agents and nearly blows their cover. “I know you are Israelis… Only Israelis cut their salad vegetables so thin.”
Shimron movingly concludes his story, “I’m no longer objective about anything pertaining to Ethiopian Jews. I admire them, their inner calm and the stamina that enabled them to stand up to terrible hardships on their way to freedom. It is the stamina of heroes. And their smiles and the sound of laughter of Ethiopian children have a unique sound. I heard it for the first time in that remote wadi somewhere in eastern Sudan.”
About Israel, “Our mission in Sudan was one of the sorts that made the Mossad a legend in the spy world. What other country would be ready to invest tens of millions of dollars to set up an operational infrastructure for secret activity in an enemy country, involving large army forces, only to save several thousand famished refugees in civil war-torn Africa?” Only Israel!
I encourage varying points of view and have helped place students in internships with Rabbis for Human Rights and other civil rights and anti-occupation NGOs. We welcome debates that expose wrongs, but what Israel invests in sweat, time and money for the Jewish people and others far outweigh the criticisms. It is time for promoting emotional investment in Israel, rather than endlessly defending it.

The writer is a business consultant and teacher. He speaks for free to community groups and writes about public and social policy.