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The Ethiopian Exodus, Part 1

Mr. Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. At the end of 1984 and in May of 1991 the Israeli government orchestrated 2 massive covert operations to transport virtually the entire Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel. The first was codenamed Operation Moses; a six week campaign to secretly transport 8000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The second was Operation Solomon; an unprecedented mass evacuation by airlift of over 15000 Ethiopian Jews in less than 36 hours. A new feature film titled Live and Become dramatizes these awe-inspiring events and explores the challenges faced by the transplanted Ethiopians as they struggled to integrate into Israeli society. To learn more about the story behind these remarkable moments in human history Think Tank is joined by Sirak Sabahat, star of the film Live and Become and participant in Operation Solomon at the age of 12 And Mitchell Bard, Executive Director of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author of many books including, From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics Behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. The topic before the house The Ethiopian Exodus part one. This week on Think Tank.

[Film Clip: 1984 a drought stuck Africa. Ethiopian jews are saved and brought to the promised land. The day of the departure a nine year old jewish boy passes away. A Christian Ethiopian woman forces her son to take the place of the dead boy and to proclaim himself as jewish in order to survive.]

Mr. Wattenberg: Welcome and welcome to our guests Mitchell Bard and Sirak Sabahat. We have just watched some we have just watched some quite remarkable footage from Sirakís film Live and Become. Sirak why donít you tell us some basic outlines of what the story is.

Mr. Sabahat: Live and Become is a story about the Ethiopian Jews. Story of a child who need to be saved and come to Israel. And this story speaks about operation named Moses that took place in 1984.

Mr. Wattenberg: Operation Moses.

Mr. Sabahat: Operation Moses in 1984. In that time, many of the Ethiopian Jews made a journey from Ethiopia to Sudan, to many places like Gadive and many people lost their lives on the ways. And when people arrived to (unintelligible) camps, refugee camps in Sudan, they had to stay there for many, many years until they were lifted to Israel. In those refugee camps you have many people from different continent. You have from, you know, you have Jews, Christians and Muslims and this story is a story of mothers; mothers that need to save children who didnít commit any crime in this world. So through the character of nine years old boy, we understand the struggle of Ethiopian Jews and what they have been through in order to be in the Promised Land.

Mr. Wattenberg: Can you, Mitchell give us some of the political background on all this and the cultural background?

Mr. Bard: Well, it goes back a long time. No one even knows where the Ethiopian Jews came from. There are a lot of different theories, but no one is exactly sure.

Mr. Wattenberg: Thereís that lovely one that the Ethiopians are descendants of a torrid love affair between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Mr. Bard: Thatís right, but that actually -Ė the Ethiopian Jews themselves donít like that theory. They donít subscribe to it. Itís actually more from the non-Jews who have accepted that idea, so no oneís really sure and they werenít even discovered until fairly late in the game. In the ninth, tenth century, people began to find out about them, there was little written history. Travelers began to discover them, missionaries, but the Ethiopians themselves always had this desire to go to their homeland and they were never aware there was such a thing as White Jews.

Mr. Sabahat: when we did the journey from the villages, we didnít understand about the people that [are] living in the counrty of Israel. We came without to understand the politics, and we came without to understand that there is other people who are living on that land. So try to imagine the first time that we saw white people, we were scared and we thought that they got a skin problem. And when we discovered that they are Jewish, we were much more terrified to discover there is a Jewish Ė- a White Jewish people because we thought that we are the only Jewish that exist in this way. So when youíre doing this kind of journey, walking in the desert, youíre feeling like Moses when he took his exile from Egypt and we had to wander fourteen years in a desert. And then those who are pure enough will be in the Holy Land. And itís absolutely amazing thing because the first time that we saw that white guy, we were actually terrified from him.

Mr. Bard: And itís actually the separation actually played a role in the politics behind the delay in rescuing the Ethiopian Jews because the fact that the Jews in Ethiopia were separated from the rest of the Jewish people, their form of Judaism was a different sort. They didnít have Rabbinic Judaism; many of the customs associated with the oral tradition were never adopted in Ethiopia; they donít celebrate holidays like Hanukkah. They donít subscribe to a lot of...

Mr. Wattenberg: Because they came in later in the Jewish...

Mr. Bard: Because they were separated, they never knew about this whole rabbinic side and it had a very important implication because that led the Jews in Israel, the orthodox authorities, for many years to question whether they were in fact Jews. It wasnít until the early 1970s, 1973 when the Sephardic Chief Rabbi finally decided that the Ethiopian Jews were in fact Jews.

Mr. Wattenberg: And I mean, itís like there were whole elements of the Israeli population which desperately, even now, but needed population to say ďNo, no; you canít come.Ē I mean, they said it to some of the Russians and they said it to the Ethiopians and they made good soldiers and good citizens and worked hard,
Mr. Bard: There was a whole political dimension as well that Israel had a geopolitical strategy of trying to surround its enemies with friends. And in the Ď50s and Ď60s and early í70s, it had built this peripheral policy up and tried to...

Mr. Wattenberg: Turkey, Iran...

Mr. Bard: Iran and Ethiopia.

Mr. Wattenberg: And maybe one other.

Mr. Bard: Those were the three. And so they were very reluctant to do anything to upset the Ethiopian government that might shake that alliance. And the fact was the leader of Ethiopia, the emperor up until...

Mr. Wattenberg: Haile Selassie.

Mr. Bard: Haile Selassie in í74 was completely against the idea of emigration of the Ethiopians. And one of the reasons he was opposed to it was that he understood that his country was a mosaic of many ethnic groups and he was afraid that this was like opening the dike. If one group was given some special recognition and allowed to be seen as different from the rest and allowed to leave, that this would create upheaval in the country and he would have a much more difficult time controlling all of the different factions. So that played an important role also in the Israeli governmentís reluctance over the years in pursuing it.
Mr. Wattenberg: Sirak, the hero of this film is a composite and he is of Christian birth is that right?

Mr. Sabahat: Yes, heís a Christian birth.

Mr. Wattenberg: And to escape the horrors and starvation and famine in that part of Africa goes from Ethiopia, west to Sudan,his mother urges him, to get on the plane and say heís Jewish. And then what happens?

Mr. Sabahat: The funny thing is that this character, that he is non-Jew character, will tell us about how hard it is to be Jewish. So this character, when heís coming to Israel, he tried to pretend that heís a Jew in 100%. And heís doing everything in his power to stay Jew when he is a Christian, we donít understand who is this child in the beginning because he take a different false identity and we know that his name is Shlomo, but we donít understand his life before that, before he was -Ė he is nine years old, so who is this child when he was five years old? What is his name?

Mr. Wattenberg: And thatís played by a child actor and then you play the mature man?

Mr. Sabahat: Yes. And this child, when his mother telling him, ďNow, you need to save yourself, live and become, otherwise donít return.Ē

Mr. Wattenberg: And thatís the name of the movie, Live and Become.

Mr. Sabahat: Yes. Yes. And I very much love this name because that name is relevant to each person in this world.

Mr. Wattenberg: How would you say that in Hebrew?

Mr. Sabahat: Tichye vetihiye. Tichye vetihiye. What is to live and what is to become. To live where and to become what.

Mr. Wattenberg: Now, is the movie playing in Israel?

Mr. Sabahat: The movie played in Israel and itís been a wonderful success in the matter of the audience because the Israeli society, they donít know a lot of things about Ethiopian Jews and they donít know about the struggling; they donít know the sacrifice that we had in order to be in this land.

Mr. Wattenberg: And some of the actors, you can tell from their accents, are clearly Israelis. I mean, theyíre not putting it on.

Mr. Sabahat: Most of the actors Israelis and thereís an actor, Yoram, the father; heís the French one. Heís very famous. Yael Abecassis, she is one of the most amazing and the most famous Israeli actress. And all the Ethiopians, they are not professional actors so they brought to this film and they work for many, many month and I hope that the American audience will have the opportunity to discover this amazing film that touch the heart and the mind at the same time.

Mr. Wattenberg: I found it amazing, I mean, almost Shakespearean. Itís got -- I guess itís called an art film, but itís got everything. Itís got beautiful photography; itís got a love story; itís got violence; itís got conflict; itís got geography; itís got politics; itís what a good movie ought to be, and they can call it an art movie if they want, but I was dazzled by it.

[Film Clip]

Mr. Wattenberg: Give us something of the political and geopolitical background of this Operation Moses, and particularly the American role.

Mr. Bard: Well, over the course of several years, the Ethiopians had begun to flee to Sudan partially because of famine, partially because of the conditions in Ethiopia, partially because there was a hope that that was a way out. There had been some private rescue efforts launched by groups like the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry which had for a long time maintained that this was a community that needed to be rescued and had felt that they Israeli government wasnít doing enough to help them. And in fact, very quietly the Israeli government was trying to build the infrastructure to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. They had mossad agents, secret agents, working in the country. They had originally gone there, not to rescue Jews; they were there because the Sudan was an Arab country, technically at war with them and that they were monitoring activities, but when the Jews were discovered in larger and larger numbers, then it became clear that many dying from starvation and from disease and there was a more immediate need to rescue them, there were operations begun to bring out small numbers and then to create airstrips for the possibility of a large airlift.

The United States played an important role by being an ally of Sudan and trying to use its financial aid with the Sudanese to suggest to them this would be a good way to help the United States or show itís good will toward the United States, and ultimately they were willing to allow Israel to have this secret airlift, became Operation Moses.

In 1984. But then the Israeli government made the mistake of publicizing it and embarrassing the Sudanese government. There are different theories of why they spoke out at the time that they did, but the Sudanese stopped the rescue. Vice President Bush at the time, George Bush, took an interest in this. He went on a visit to the President of Sudan and ultimately offered a large aid package in exchange for their cooperation in letting the Jews go. The CIA become involved reluctantly. The CIA was afraid that if things went bad, they would be blamed.

Mr. Wattenberg: The CIA is always reluctant about everything.

Mr. Bard: Thatís true.

Mr. Wattenberg: Thatís their middle name.

Mr. Bard: There was a key man, there was a key agent, a guy named Jerry Weaver who was working with some of the Israelis, Ethiopian Jews who had gone back to the Sudan to be helpful in the rescue to set up but yet another airlift aimed at taking all the rest out. And then this was called Operation Joshua and about 500 Jews were taken out. They had...

Mr. Wattenberg: And Sirak, you came over in Operation Solomon, right, which is later?

Mr. Sabahat: Yes. 1991. Until Operation Solomon, Operation Solomon was the last operation, the biggest operation. And it was an amazing operation. Thirty-six hours, 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were lifted to Israel. It was one of the biggest things.

Mr. Wattenberg: How did it physically work? I mean, first they had to walk across the desert and then get in -Ė stay in the camps, and then get into the planes, is that right? And many people died.

Mr. Sabahat: Yeah, Itís quite tough, but I will try to. Try to imagine this. You need to be in one place, so people are saying to you, if you want to arrive to one place, you need to do the first step and after you do the first step we will be there to help you to cross the second step. And what was the first step? The first step, the Ethiopian Jews, they were responsible to do the first step from the villages to Sudan to refugee camps. From refugee camps they will be lifted the Ethiopians cross the country to Kenya and many of those people died. But on the way, itís a very strong (unintelligible) family; itís a very strong society and in the ways even, many people, when they lost their life they Ė- many people change also. Their perception, their understanding about this kind of journey.

[Film Clip]

Mr. Wattenberg: The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, itís one of the few instances where an entire people came in more or less at once. Normally thereís sort of a stream, but this was sort of ďboomĒ; is that right?

Mr. Sabahat: Yeah, but although it was in 1991 of that...

Mr. Wattenberg: I guess there are other examples...

Mr. Sabahat: Operation Solomon, the people who came, those people who came in that operation, we came in that operation, we were arriving to Israel, but those who arrived before us in Operation Moses, they were our family, so it was in 1984, many people were waiting for their families to be joined them to the Holy Land and in Ď84 many people left. When they left the villages a family went in different directions and a father left his family and a wife, too as well, and children left their parents and arrived to Israel, so there was many people who arrived to Israel without to be with their family. So in 1991 Operation Solomon gave that close up. Many families were lost or who were waiting to join and to meet together, they got together in this operation in 1991.

Mr. Bard: This was also the problem with the integration of the Jews who did come, that so many felt guilty because family members had been left behind. Children who had been orphaned, members of the family who died in the course of trying to get to Sudan, or after being in the camps. So it was a tremendous psychological burden for many of the Jews especially who came early on, to have to live with the knowledge of having left people behind or being separated from family. And so as more came in í91 that helped to strengthen the community in some of those ways that had really been a major barrier to their integration in the early years.

Mr. Wattenberg: Are there Ethiopian Jews in the Knesset now?

Mr. Sabahat: We had one representative in the Knesset and it was Mazor Bayana and we donít have anyone in the Knesset.

Mr. Wattenberg: Not now?

Mr. Sabahat: No. We donít. And itís very hard because in Israel, in order to change the society, I would say you need to do it through the law, through someone who can speak behalf, and in the Ethiopian community we donít have that representative but we have thousand of organizations that are trying to make changes, trying to do a lobby in the Knesset. But I assume that in the years to come we need to produce one leader who can combine the reality and the vision.

Mr. Wattenberg: Do the Israeli Ethiopian Jews tend to vote left, right, center, or all over?

Mr. Sabahat: That is a very good question, because we are very much loyal and we...

Mr. Wattenberg: Very much what?

Mr. Sabahat: Loyal. Thereís loyalty. If we came at a time of the left, weíll support the left; if we come at a time of the right, we will support the right. So, but the Ethiopian Jews, mostly we are, most of us very right.

Mr. Wattenberg: Very what?

Mr. Sabahat: Right. On the right side. We support the right, the Likud for example because we love this land and this land is very important for us and when youíre doing this kind of journey, youíre doing this journey to save that land, and after youíve been in that land you want to keep it, so we would like to talk with those whoíve got the idea of preserving these kind of ideas.

Mr. Bard: This is also why the differences between Ethiopian and the Soviet Jews who came, the Russian Jews who came, itís just the Russian Jews came with a political consciousness. They knew about political organizations, so early on they organized themselves as a political party, as Russian Jews interested in pursuing Russian interests. The Ethiopians didnít have that history and tradition coming from Ethiopia where there had been farmers and largely powerless. They were on the lowest rung of the economic society and one of the poorest countries in the world, and theyíre also just in small numbers. I mean, today thereís about 100,000 (one hundred thousand) Ethiopian Jews. Thatís a little over one percent of the population. So for them to form a party of their own, for example, or to be an interest group, theyíd be a relatively small...

Mr. Wattenberg: Well, thereís about six million Israeli Jews so they would get probably two, or three Knesset seats, wouldnít they?

Mr. Sabahat: No.

Mr. Wattenberg: No?

Mr. Sabahat: No. Itís -Ė the mandate is 45,000. I donít know; each time itís changing but maybe we can produce one person who will be in the Knesset because not all of them have the right to vote and the...

Mr. Wattenberg: I see.

Mr. Sabahat: So...


Mr. Wattenberg: Now, Do many of the Ethiopians in Israel go toward agriculture jobs? There isnít much agriculture Ė- there isnít much need for agriculture labor, is there? I mean, everything is so mechanized now.

Mr. Sabahat: This is one of the mistakes of Israel from my opinion, because when we came to a new society, instead of to give the same place, the same natural environment that weíre used to, we went to live in boxes, so it is...

Mr. Wattenberg: To where?

Mr. Sabahat: In boxes. In buildings. In Israel you have kibbutz and you have Moshav, and the agriculture in Israel itís not developed as much as it should be and you see that sometimes there are illegal workers that are coming from different countries to do agriculture work. And we were experts for those kind of things, so the question of integration and the question of understanding the new society, it is a question to be debate -Ė to do a lot of debate and to ask many questions about it.
Mr. Wattenberg: Okay. The clock is telling us that we have to end. Sirak Sabahat and Mitchell Bard thanks for joining us on Think Tank, and thank you. Please remember to join us for a future episode when we will continue our discussion about this incredible moment in human history. Also, remember please to send us your comments via email, we think it makes our show better. For think tank Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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