By Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.
As this summer’s Jewish feel-good movie, “The Red Sea Diving Resort” (Netflix) begins, the hero, Ari, aborts a last-second car escape in 1979 Ethiopia in order to rescue a young refugee from his machine-gunning pursuers. Plucking the boy from certain death, Ari explains his heroic action: “We leave no one behind.”
Two “inspired by true events” movie-hours later, the narrator concludes: “He kept his promise. We did go back. Again and again. We left no one behind.”
Except …. we did. The movie perpetuates a tragic myth. Although Israel did go back again and again to rescue thousands of additional Ethiopian Jews, in Operations Moses (1984), Solomon (1991) and numerous other less-heralded actions, it did leave thousands behind, though it denied doing so until 2015. Only then did the Government agree to bring home all those who still languish in what the Knesset described – and what I’ve seen first-hand — as “appalling conditions.” Thousands are still there now.
How did this happen? Though largely cut off from the rest of the Jewish world, Jews lived in Ethiopia for millennia. Then, a century ago, some, who came to be known as “Falash Mura” nominally or actually converted to Christianity under enormous pressure. Unlike many other converts in Jewish history, they generally did not intermarry with their Christian neighbors, to whom they continued to be outsiders and from whom they suffered discrimination. Some retained Jewish practices.
In the 1980s, when thousands of Jews abandoned their rural villages and trekked to Gondar and Addis Ababa in hopes of being rescued by Israel, many of the so-called Falash Mura did as well, longing to return to the Jewish people. According to Jewish law and long history, descendants of converts who wish to return must be accepted. [See, for example, “Spanish conversos and Ethiopian Jewry” by Joseph Feit, Jerusalem Post, August 5, 2019] (https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Spanish-conversos-and-Ethiopian-Jewry-597771.
But suspecting their motives and afraid of opening floodgates for African migration, Israeli government representatives rejected those they identified, rightly or wrongly, as the descendants of converts, often separating families. This despite Israel’s acceptance of huge numbers of other immigrants whose connection to Judaism was far more tenuous.
Since then many, rejected for aliyahfor more than twenty years, have lived fully Jewish lives, in strict compliance with Jewish law and ritual. A small but telling example: One Shabbat, after our well-attended services, I invited two young men to walk back to my hotel for lunch. Living in a family of seven in a tiny mud hut, it’s likely that they had never before entered any tourist hotel, much less been offered a menu of culinary choices. Still, they refused this probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because, by their understanding of Jewish law and required observance, hot food on Shabbat is forbidden!
These are the people whose sincere dedication to Judaism some Jews have the chutzpah to question! Have those who say, “they’re not Jews” forgotten how Ruth, the quintessential convert and progenitor of King David (and, by tradition, of the Messiah) declared her allegiance? “Ameich Ami v’Elkayich Elokai,” “Your nation is my nation, and Your G-d is my G-d.” Ruth 1:16. The Falash Mura belong to the Jewish people more than Ruth; they are returnees to our nation and to our G-d – if they (their recent ancestors) really left at all. They have proven their sincerity in the only way that anyone can – by living as G-d and Torah-fearing Jews under the most difficult circumstances, including anti-Semitism. If we reject them, on what basis can we legitimately accept anyconvert? Let us also remember, as we approach the High Holy Days, that G-d loves the repentant more than the pious. Yoma 86b. If we abandon these sincere returnees, how can we expect our own repentance to be accepted?
On each of three visits, I have been dismayed by their destitute circumstances, including chronic infant and pregnant-women malnutrition, and lack of even basic medical care. In an impoverished country, they are the poorest of the poor. Yet, I have been amazed and inspired by their resilience and strength of spirit, their absolute commitment to Judaism and Israel, and their determination to “go home”.
In 2015, Israel finally announced that it would bring home the vast majority of the previously rejected applicants on humanitarian/family reunification grounds (70% have first-degree relatives in Israel). However, the Government allocated no funds to do so. Four years on, implementation has proceeded at a snail’s pace – on average, approximately 400 per year have arrived, albeit to great fanfare. Contrary to some critics’ predictions, the arrivals have continued to live fully Jewish lives in Israel, almost all formally converting to Judaism to remove any lingering doubt about their sincerity.
While they continue to wait, the remaining 9,000 applicants in Ethiopia receive no aid from anyone save only food and medical assistance for several hundred in Gondar. This limited aid is financed primarily by two relatively small organizations, Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jews (SSEJ) and North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ). Virtually no assistance has been provided by Jewish Federations and none whatsoever by the Joint Distribution Committee – which, ironically, does assist non-Jews in Ethiopia.
On my last trip in March, I witnessed agonizing decisions being made. Should food be withheld from some hungry infants in order to provide a second meal to already severely malnourished infants? Should iodized salt rations for malnourished infants and pregnant women be cut so that half-rations can be distributed more widely? Can any funds be allocated for an afternoon “snack” (i.e., a piece of fruit), so that hungry schoolchildren could attend Jewish after-school programs instead of going home in hopes of something to eat? There simply isn’t enough money for even the most urgent needs.
Back to the movie. “And her name was Sheba,” explains Ari to his young daughter in Israel. “And she was the most beautiful queen in the world. And she traveled all the way from Africa to visit Solomon in Jerusalem. And they fell in love and they had a baby. And that’s why, thousands of years later, part of our family’s in Africa. And that’s why I have to help them.”
Forty years after the Red Sea Diving Resort operation, part of our family still languishes there … left behind while the Israeli government dawdles and delays. At the very least, you and I, our families, friends, and communities – all of us — must help them stay alive until Israel honors its promise. That the government of Israel has yet to bring home the Falash Mura – a decision based on politics, stinginess, ignorance, and, worst of all, racism — does not give us in the Diaspora the right to abrogate our familial responsibility.
The film concludes with the narrator pleading:
“The Red Sea Diving Resort was not truly a hotel. But it embodied a higher truth. Perhaps the highest. When you see your brother or your sister suffering, you must not stay silent. Do not remain still. Go to their aid. Help them.”
It’s up to each of us. Even a few dollars will help save lives in our extended Jewish family.
For more information, including how to help through tax-deductible donations, please go to anJieonline.org. Anonymous donors will match gifts to NACOEJ and SSEJ made through the anJieonline.orgwebsite or that mention anJie.
Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D. is the founder of the non-profit organization anJie– Aid for Needy Jews in Ethiopia. He can be reached through the anJieonline.org website, at which photos and videos are also accessible. Please become a website “follower” and “like” us on Facebook.