By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
There are more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. They have made aliya from their impoverished African homeland in waves going back to the late 1970s. The most dramatic mass emigration took place in 1991, when more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from the capital, Addis Ababa, to the Jewish state in what is known as Operation Solomon.
“You should have seen how wonderful the Israeli Air Force was,” says Asher Naim, who was Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia at the time. “Thirty-five planes, 42 flights, in 25 hours, we took out 14,200 Ethiopian Jews… It was the largest evacuation in history — really a miracle by itself. It made news all over the world.”
During a phone interview with the AJW last week, Naim talked about his role in the mass aliya of Ethiopian Jews, and his current work on behalf of the Scholarship Fund for Ethiopian Jews (SFEJ), which helps young Ethiopians gain the tools needed to serve their community and contribute to Israeli society.
Ambassador Naim will tell the story of Operation Solomon in local appearances from Dec. 2-6. He will speak at services and other events as the scholar-in-residence at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. The local federations will host talks by Naim, and the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning will sponsor talks by Naim at Jewish and Christian parochial schools in the Twin Cities.
When Naim speaks 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3 at the St. Paul JCC, he will be introduced by former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who was the U.S. emissary sent by Pres. George H.W. Bush to help secure the release of the Ethiopian Jews. Naim and Boschwitz negotiated the release of the Jewish minority with the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
“Rudy Boschwitz did a terrific job,” says Naim, and adds that the Ethiopian regime “wanted arms and they wanted money… every thousand [Jews] we got out, we had to pay for it.”
As antigovernment rebels were encircling Addis Ababa, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided that the vulnerable Ethiopian Jews should be evacuated en masse and quickly, relates Naim, who wrote a book about this chapter in history, Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews (Random House, 2003).
Mengistu initially demanded $100 million to facilitate the release of the Ethiopian Jews, according to Naim. He explains that Boschwitz emphasized that the U.S. could use its influence to help the dictator relocate to another country.
“[Boschwitz] promised Mengistu safe passage out,” Naim recalls. The Ethiopian leader eventually settled in Zimbabwe.
In October, Naim received the Spirit of Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award bestowed “on individuals, organizations and communities that reflect Raoul Wallenberg’s humanitarian spirit, personal courage and nonviolent action in the face of enormous odds.”
Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who was sent to Budapest toward the end of World War II, and saved thousands of Jews by giving them Swedish credentials. When Soviet forces took the city, Wallenberg was arrested and never heard from again.
Naim said that rescuing the Ethiopian Jews “maybe was an heroic act,” but integrating the immigrants into Israeli society is a project that requires “years of work and lots of money.”
The Ethiopian Jews, who came from a fairly primitive agrarian society, traveled several hours by jet to Israel, but they found themselves decades behind in the skills needed for a fast-paced, high-tech country. It has been a struggle for many families to adapt to their new homeland.
The Scholarship Fund for Ethiopian Jews, which once funded only academic pursuits, now is “more flexible.” Naim said that stipends are available to help people find gainful employment and get off the government welfare roles. He said that SFEJ has helped 3,000 students pursue education in a variety of professions.
“I’m concerned about their education,” says Naim, regarding the Ethiopian Jews funded by SFEJ. “Once they’re educated, the road is open… We need to put them on their feet.”
Since his retirement from Israel’s foreign service in 1995, Naim has dedicated himself to the betterment of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
At the conclusion of the interview, Naim said he wanted to “say a good word about Sen. Boschwitz, he’s really a fantastic person.” He recalled that Boschwitz, during the time he represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, would sponsor social events for the young Jewish staffers on Capitol Hill, so they could “find one another.”
Ambassador Naim will speak on “Ethiopian Jews: Then and Now” 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3 at the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. A reception will follow the talk, which is sponsored by the St. Paul JCC and the United Jewish Fund and Council of St. Paul. For information, call 651-698-0751, or go to: jewishstpaul.org.
Also, Naim will be the scholar-in-residence at Temple Israel, 2324 Emerson Ave. S., Minneapolis, Dec. 4-5. He will speak 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4 at Shabbat services, followed by an oneg reception; and will be the featured guest at a Torah study and Shabbat service 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and a Lunch and Learn at 11:30 a.m.
The Minneapolis Jewish Federation will host an evening with Naim 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6 at the Sabes JCC, 4330 Cedar Lake Rd. S., St. Louis Park.
(American Jewish World, 11.27.09)