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The Ethiopian Exodus, Part 2

Mr. Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg.
At the end of 1984 and once again in 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 nearly 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 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 two, this week on Think Tank.

[Film Clip]


Mr. Wattenberg: We just saw some of this remarkable new film Live and Become. Letís continue our discussion about Ethiopian Jews and this remarkable new film. Mitchell, they call this Ethiopian-Israeli community Beta Israel?

Mr. Bard: Yes. The House of Israel.

Mr. Wattenberg: And why did they want to emigrate?

Mr. Bard: Well, the Ethiopian Jews always dreamed of coming to their homeland. In many ways they were the most authentic Jews; the most authentic Zionists who always dreamed of Israel as the homeland, the Promised Land that they wanted to return to and I think itís one of the reasons why they were welcomed overwhelmingly by the Israeli people when they first began to come in the various rescues.

Mr. Wattenberg: But not by the religious people. Well, and not by a lot of the so-called white Ashkenazi. I mean, there is a color barrier everywhere, isnít there?

Mr. Bard: Yeah, I think there was actually relatively little of the color barrier when they began to come there because there was an appreciation among most Israelis that these were people who were coming because they believed it was the Promised Land. There was much more cynicism and reluctance to accept Russian Jews, who they felt were coming for less pure reasons, shall we say, and so the Ethiopians really were well accepted and loved and they were appreciated as people came for very pure reasons that were hard workers, were interested in assimilating and absorbing being absorbed into the country. It wasnít that there werenít any problems or there was a compete absence of racism, but the overwhelming, I think, sense in Israel was this is a great thing for Israel; itís a demonstration of our goal of bringing all of the Jewish people into their homeland

Mr. Wattenberg: Sirak, is that your understanding, that there was more rejection of the Russian Jews than of the Ethiopians? That was not my understanding.

Mr. Sabahat: Well, Israel is a very cosmopolitan place.

Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, I understand.

Mr. Sabahat: And thereís more than 135-139 different cultures and each culture tries to emphasize their own side. And the Ethiopians, we must understand, thereís a gap between this world and the world that weíre coming from. There is a gap of three/four hundred years. Itís like bringing someone from the 19th century to this moment exactly and to explain to them about cameras and TVs. And this is something that the mind cannot understand.

And the Russian Jews, when they arrived to Israel, they were much more, you know, they are very much educated people and they came after university and they know about this world. And the Ethiopian Jews, we were an agriculture people who worked the land. So the differences in that society are applied because those kind of gaps. First we need to find a common voice; we need to find a pair that we can be part of the society. We need to educate our self in the universities before we are saying we are speaking about integration.
Mr. Wattenberg: You went to university in Israel?

Mr. Sabahat: Yes.

Mr. Wattenberg: To which one?

Mr. Sabahat: To University of Haifa.

Mr. Wattenberg: And what did you study?

Mr. Sabahat: I studied theater. And I studied to be an actor.

Mr. Wattenberg: And did you play in Habima? Have you played there?

Mr. Sabahat: I played and we work on a play that was called ďWith JulietĒ. We started to work with actresses with cooperation with Habima for -Ė with a long time, but I started my way in theater most of the time. But the funniest thing is when I said to -Ė when I chose to be an actor, they didnít understand what is an actor. In Ethiopia thereís no actress and thereís nothing like this, so when I arrived to a new society I said to people that I want to be an actor because I saw Alfred Hitchcock, eight-minute show. He said on the stage you can be whatever you want to be. You can be a lawyer; you can be a beggar and you can be... and I said, ďWhy people are going to be the one thing in university when they can be all those things on the stage?Ē So when people understand that Iím going to study theater, they told me ďYou chose the profession that is going to bring you starvationĒ in any world. And I didnít understand what they were talking about, of course.

Mr. Wattenberg: Letís pick up the thread again and weíll be showing some clips. So this young boy is extremely bright and speaks Ethiopian and HebrewÖ

Mr. Sabahat: French

Mr. Wattenberg: Öand is a brilliant kid, and he is both accepted by a French-Jewish family, right? And then he is rejected by some of their own children. Their other children? And some of their classmates, right?

Mr. Sabahat: Yeah. Heís coming to a new society and heís discovering suddenly that there is some kind of rejection and first we donít understand what is racism. In order to understand racism, your mentality needs to be in that position. So our mentality didnít understand why there is racism. So when we start to understand that racism was a different approach to human beings, then we find different way to respond to it. And that child is struggling because he doesnít understand why the children see him as a different one. But this is the amazing thing; youíre coming from a place once you were majority. Now youíre a minority in your color and this child needed to struggle in a new society and to justify himself and to work twice [as] hard and to be in the position of many other children.

[Film Clip]

Mr. Bard: We have to remember theyíre a relatively new group of immigrants and Operation Moses was only 1984. Many more came in í85 and í91, so the Ethiopian Jews havenít been in Israel a long time. The younger people, the younger Ethiopians have had a much easier time, but theyíre just now getting to the point of having great success, like Sirak now becoming a successful actor.

I just happened to get an email...

Mr. Wattenberg: Not just a successful actor; I gather heís a raving sex symbol all throughout Europe (laughter). You like that?

Mr. Sabahat: Sometimes. Sometimes.

Mr. Bard: He has that over me, but just yesterday for example, I got an email from an Ethiopian Jewish woman who said ďIím the first Ethiopian Jew to get a PhD and Iíve just been offered a fellowship at Harvard to study education. Just a year or so ago was one of the first Ethiopians to graduate medical school.Ē So itís a slow process to go from, as you said, a society of agriculture where they didnít know flush toilets, ATMs, the most basic services that we take for granted.

Mr. Wattenberg: I am astonished when I put a piece of plastic in and I get out some twenties, but go ahead.

Mr. Sabahat: Thereís a play that I wrote thatís called From the Bible to the Subway. Itís describing those things when youíre coming from the Bible time to the subway time, so the gaps that youíre having in the middle, how hard it is to understand this amazing process. And the way youíre describing those things, itís absolutely amazing because this is the question that weíre asking. I came to Israel when I was twelve years old and many young Ethiopians came also and those similar age. When we came to Israel, suddenly we had to educate ourselves, and we ask why we need to educate our self. Why education is necessary. In those times you could work on the land and do a few things and provide to your family, but here things were different and you coming at age of twelve without read and write in your native language. And many people today speak four, three languages and me personally, even though thereís many difficulties; even though thereís Ė- we are struggling in a new society, but people are doing the impossible because after youíve been saved you have the opportunity to stay alive, you will do whatever is necessary to make it.

[Film Clip]

Mr. Wattenberg: In your personal experience in Israel, have you felt discriminated against because of your color or your background? Have people rejected you and said, ďOh, heís an Ethiopian; heís not whiteĒ?

Mr. Sabahat: Racism exists in any place.

Mr. Wattenberg: I know.

Mr. Sabahat: Racism exists in Israel; it exists in United States. Itís a human disease like any other disease.

Mr. Wattenberg: Well, let me ask you this; do they Ethiopian parents dislike it when their children marry out? They would prefer them to marry Ethiopians, wouldnít they?

Mr. Sabahat: We prefer to marry Jewish people. As long as we are among Jewish, but at the beginning we didnít know about the white Jews, so we didnít know about the white girls, the white Jewish girls. Now we need to understand that there is a different kind of a relationship, but now our parents, they are much more open. But we need to marry in the Jewish society, with a Jewish girl. But you asked me about the racism. [I just donít want to go?] -Ė racism exists...

Mr. Wattenberg: All over.

Mr. Sabahat: ...all over. In Israel also and I have been experienced that, but the most important thing is I understand about Israel. Israel is a very young place and each person knows, ďYou are Russian, yes? You are Ethiopian, yes? Where are you from?Ē ďWe are from this place.Ē And weíre trying to give some kind of definition to each person because each group feels insecure. And racism exists, but at the end of the day we need to remember that there is a great forces also. The great forces of good people that saved our lives, and I believe the Ethiopian Jews were saved because there were good people that believed that these kind of people need to be saved. So we can speak about those fanatic people for a long, long time, donít put your energy on those who creating a barrier between human beings; put your energy on those who creating a better humanity for all of us, and there is many of us. And we should remember, what is the land for us and not what is the stupid people, the fanatic people.

Mr. Bard: Some people accuse the Israeli government of not wanting the Ethiopian Jews because they were black. But this was the same Israeli government that had rescued the entire population of Yemenite Jews who are also dark-skinned, or the Jews from Morocco and other places. So while, as he is, there certainly were individuals here and there who had racist views, or more often, not even racist views, more a paternalistic view of what could these people do for us because they were coming from this primitive agrarian society that werenít going to have an immediate contribution to the country. And there was also the feeling of with Ethiopian Jews that they werenít in danger. That the most immediate reason for Jews to be rescued from different countries is they needed to be rescued because they were in danger, and there was a sense for a long time that the Ethiopian Jews really werenít in danger. But when it became more obvious, especially after the famine in the late Ď70s, early Ď80s, and when they did go to Sudan and they were in clear danger and people were dying, then Israel acted the way it always has in coming to their rescue and bringing them all to Israel.

Mr. Sabahat: Israel got a long way to go in the matter of the Ethiopian Jews and the matter of understanding, establishing a new kind of voice.
Mr. Wattenberg: But the second and third and subsequent generations have become, as it has in America, I mean, we have data that shows back to the early part of the 20th century, public survey data that shows people hated Jews, they hated blacks, they hated Irish, they hated Pols, and then you ask their children and grandchildren and they say, ďOh, isnít it wonderful that the Jews came here, that the Irish came here.Ē And then now theyíre anti-Mexican. And their children will say, ďIsnít it wonderful that the Mexicans came here.Ē Itís a very great idea of the melting pot.

Mr. Sabahat: youíre right, each society trying to say that this society is less good, this society is less likable, and this is the basic human...

Mr. Wattenberg: Just personally, youíre a young man, youíre 25. Are most of your friends Ethiopian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, mix of everything? Youíre in the acting community, I guess, so itís...

Mr. Sabahat: I donít see colors at the end of the day. I donít see religions at the end of the day. I see personalities and I see peopleís hearts. I have friends from all over. I donít say to myself ďBecause I am Ethiopian Jew I will have only that thingĒ. Now Iím living in a new society and I need to adapt myself and try to understand what this world is trying to tell me, and how I can understand this world and how my parents can understand this world. So Iím going and investigating and I have from all the colors and all the shapes, so itís quite nice.
[Film Clip]

Mr. Bard: It was not so long ago in the Ď50s when many Jews came from Arab countries and there was this sort of tension between Sephardic and Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews and reluctance to intermarry and now you have very little of any of that. Now itís very common.

Mr. Wattenberg: I think itís true that American society has the most nationalities and people from everywhere and I wrote a book called The First Universal Nation, but if Iím not mistaken, it may be that Israel is second. I mean, there are really Jews from everywhere. I mean, sometimes small communities of 300 people from India or from Sierra Leone and place around the world. But theyíve come together and thereís a lot of tension, but they somehow manage to put it together.

Mr. Sabahat: This is amazing. In this place, in a very small place, a place with pressure all the time, and you have this kind of different cultures, more than 135 cultures living in that place with the difficulties and to try to find some kind of link that can make a society, even though youíre having the problems, but this tells me that this is a great place with a great approach and people can abide but itís hard. Itís very hard.

Mr. Wattenberg: In that lovely closing scene of this remarkable movie, the character you play goes back to Ethiopia and tries to track down his mother. She says something like, ďDonít come back until youíre someoneĒ, something like that. And he comes back and heís saving babies in the middle of a war.

Mr. Sabahat: Like I said before, this is a very great lesson for people with understanding about different places. Iím always saying half of the world trying to lose weight and half of the world trying to gain weight. This child is the child of Africa, and this mother is the mother of Africa, so this child is returning to that place to search all the mothers that didnít have the chance to find their sons, and the mother is representative all the mothers who lost their child. But he is returning in a different way. So it is absolutely Ė-a very emotional and a great moment for me as an actor just to have that privilege and to take it and to pass it, and in the same time to show something different.

You know, weíre speaking about starvation. This is reality. Youíre speaking about war in Africa. This is reality. But we donít speak about hope. What things tell about Israel, that Israel got the possibility and ability to accept those who are not among their nations. So we are saving also people who are not Jewish, but we have the understanding and we have the obligation to do so after the Second World War II because many of the white Jews in Europe were saved by priests and they were hidden in the basement and they were hidden in the roof. And many Christians saved those people. They didnít saw their religion; they saw the thing that need to be saved, and me as a Jewish, I understand the heritage of the Jewish history, so if I could save thousand of people from different colors and religion, I will do that.

Mr. Bard: One of the reasons I called my book From Tragedy to Triumph is that I think ultimately the people of Israel are those kinds of people who wanted to save not only their own people, but anyone who was in danger because at the very same time, coincidentally that Israel was taking in some of the people from Ethiopia, they also were taking in boat people for example, from Vietnam. So that there is this sense of responsibility I think thatís very strong among the Jewish people and in Israel that is reflected in not only how they saved the Ethiopian Jews, but how they reach out to other communities.

Mr. Wattenberg: And yet the east community has proved to be quite remarkable here in the United States, and when I went to high school in the Bronx about 100 years ago, the top students in this New York State scholarship thing, probably 90% were Jewish and now probably about 80% are Asian.

Mr. Bard: I think youíre going to see that kind of thing happen with Ethiopians. As they have a longer period in Israel, youíre going to see more and more success, more and more success stories at all levels, whether itís acting; whether itís politics; whether itís education. Thereís expectation, there were some studies done that found that some teachers in Israeli schools had lower expectations for Ethiopian students, but then when they discovered that actually they learned as well or as better often than other students, their misperceptions were changed. That some of that also goes on, and as Ethiopians achieve all of these successes itíll just be much more common to accept that as a community thatís just as likely to be in all of those areas of Israeli society as all the others.

Mr. Wattenberg: On that note we will have to end it. Sirak Sabahat, Mitchell Bard, thanks for joining us on Think Tank and Thank You. Please remember to send us your comments via email; we think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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