On eagles' wings

Paul Greenberg

June 04, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

WHAT a story.

It could have come from the Book of Exodus: The generations of slavery and degradation. The cleaving to faith. The fruitless negotiations with a pharaoh. The plagues upon the land. The deliverance amidst signs and wonders. The departure in haste for the Promised Land.

The mass exodus of Ethiopia's Jews the other weekend had more than a familiar ring; it sounded like a remake with a cast of thousands. About 18,000 at last count. All the elements of the old story were still in place and so was the grand theme of the narrative: From slavery unto freedom.

Of course modern technology has intervened since the biblical version. The trip to the Promised Land took three-and-a-half hours rather than 40 years. But the spirit, and the Spirit, was the same. So were some of the details, right down to the unleavened bread the families took along. Reports that the Red Sea split have not been confirmed. But the clouds parted as the continuous, 24-hour shuttle of C-130s and 747s unloaded their passengers. Out these new Israelis and old Israelites poured, cheering and trilling, singing a new song. They didn't have to wait for luggage. They had none.

This time there was no objection from the ultra-orthodox to air traffic at Ben Gurion International on the sabbath; one is permitted to break the Jewish sabbath to preserve human life. The Israelis claimed a new passenger record for one Boeing 747: 1,087 men, women and children. Sixty percent of this exodus consisted of children. For many, it was their first ride on a wheeled vehicle. "Some of the children climbing on that 747 were pretty wide-eyed," reported one observer.

This exodus had been a long time in the making. The first reports of a curious African tribe that observed a seventh day of rest and various other rituals reminiscent of the Old Testament came from an intrepid British explorer during the 19th century. They were called Falashas by the other Ethiopians -- strangers -- but they knew who they were. They called themselves Beta Israel, House of Israel. They didn't have some books of scripture nor the Talmud, but what they had, they kept. They didn't have all the festivals but they had some distinctive ones of their own, like a holiday celebrating the return of the Babylonian Jews to ancient Palestine. After the events of this weekend, they may have one more.

The famines and Ethiopia's long civil war pushed the Falashas out of Gondar, the northwestern province where they had lived as subsistence farmers and petty artisans. For a time (1984-85) the Israelis were able to sneak them out via Sudan. Operation Moses, it was called. But it had to be called off when word got out and Arab pressure was exerted. Since then, refugees from the mountains of Gondar have trekked down to Addis Ababa, where they were ransomed a few hundred at a time.

With rebel troops encircling the capital and survival uncertain, American influence -- and probably some pressure -- was successfully brought to bear and the Israeli airlift allowed. Like Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor who allowed the Jews to return from Babylonia in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, George Bush has earned a niche in Jewish history.

For a time there was some question about how Jewish these Ethiopes were, and a few rabbis insisted they go through a ceremonial conversion, which they rejected as the gratuitous insult it was. Ethiopia's Beta Israel had been Jewish long before Jews appeared in the West; maybe it's the rest of us Jews who ought to be submitting our credentials to them. One suspects they could teach us a thing or two about faithfulness.

The rabbis soon decided that Ethiopia's Jews were descended from the tribe of Dan, and legend traced their ancestry to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This weekend it was clear that their past, however interesting, wasn't nearly as important as assuring that they would have a future.

Many another twist and turn doubtless await the Beta Israel. But before the inevitable adjustments and complications set in, just for one moment in their history and meta-history, a single image from the television screen stands out: a smiling little boy in new sneakers running, jumping and skipping down a long boarding ramp onto the land of Israel, an only kid home at last.

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