Airlift continues Israel's 1984 effort

May 25, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- If Israel succeeds in carrying out an emergency airlift of Ethiopian Jews, it will have belatedly completed an operation that began amid great secrecy in 1984 but broke down when its existence became public knowledge.

That first, secret airlift, beginning in November 1984, involved about 7,000 Ethiopian Jews who treked by foot to a transit camp in Sudan before being secretly flown to Israel, and initially to a heartfelt welcome.

To Israel's consternation, Sudan halted the operation after Israeli officials disclosed its existence, embarrassing Ethiopia as well. Hundreds of Jews were left stranded in Sudan and thousands more in Ethiopia.

The United States organized another secret operation to rescue the Jews left in Sudan and flew them to Israel. But emigration from Ethiopia for a time dropped almost to zero, and relations between Israel and Ethiopia remained strained.

The Jews brought to Israel encountered crippling social difficulties that are still in the process of being resolved. Despite their warm welcome, they found it difficult to find jobs, acceptance into a wholly different culture and even full acceptance as Jews.

In a controversy that has not entirely subsided, Rabbinic authorities in Israel questioned the Jewishness of the Ethiopians, who traced their origins to Old Testament times and the lost Israelite tribe of Dan.

Religious authorities in Israel, after months of controversy, dropped some of their requirements but demanded that the Ethiopians participate in a ritual immersion, to symbolically wash away the past and reaffirm their Jewishness. Many of the Ethiopians have refused, complaining that the requirement demeans their sacrifices.

Many of them are illiterate subsistence farmers. The Ethiopians have struggled to recover from the shock of being brought into a modern, Westernized country.

Israel's eagerness to win permission for the remaining Jews to emigrate from Ethiopia grew as the fortunes of Ethiopia's central government declined in that country's civil war.

Israel feared that the rebels would make the remaining Jews one of their main targets, since the Jews were seen as having been granted special status by the government, and that they would suffer whatever fate befell the government.

Mutual anxieties eventually helped relations between the two countries to improve, beginning in 1989. As the civil war began to turn in the rebels' favor, then-President Mengistu Haile Mariam began a desperate search for diplomatic and military allies, just as Israel's concern grew about the safety of Ethiopian Jews.

Mr. Mengistu counted on better relations with Israel to earn his regime more sympathy with the West. Israeli officials successfully lobbied the Bush administration to send a high-level representative for talks in

Addis Ababa. Mr. Mengistu responded by allowing large-scale emigration to resume.

The United States became involved in efforts to mediate an end to the civil war, an effort that is to continue Monday when representatives of the three factions are to meet in U.S.-sponsored talks in London.

In 1990, Ethiopian Jews began to reach Israel at the rate of as many as 1,000 a month, although with occasional interruptions because of changes in Ethiopian policy. To avoid an appearance of weakness, Addis Ababa insisted that the emigration be limited to reuniting families divided between the countries.

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