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Ethiopian Israelis, the right of return, and accusations of racism


While spending the day volunteering in Beer Sheva with the Jewish Agency a few months ago, we visited children at an Ethiopian Absorption center/school. While there we interacted with the children (actually helped them make small kites), and learned about the the unique challenges facing Ethiopian Olim through the years – a community that is now over 100,000 strong here, but whose integration into Israeli society has been hampered both by the vast differences between Ethiopian and Israeli culture, as well as by lingering discrimination.

While there we heard from Micah Feldman, who gave us an overview of the efforts undertaken by Israel to rescue the Jews of Ethiopia. Feldman, quite the hero in the Ethiopian Aliyah movement, known as Abba Micha among his many Ethiopian friends, worked to facilitate Operation Moses, which brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and was actually one of the chief engineers of Operation Soloman, which brought an additional 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Tel- Aviv.

Operation Moses was the mission which rescued Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during a famine in 1984 – an effort of the IDF, the CIA, the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, mercenaries, and Sudanese security forces. Begun November 21, 1984, it involved the air transport of some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan directly to Israel, ending January 5, 1985.

Thousands of these Jews had fled Ethiopia on foot for temporary refugee camps in Sudan (who secretly agreed to take them in) but, once the story broke in the media, however, Arab countries pressured Sudan to stop the airlift and about 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind. Most of them were evacuated later in the U.S.-led Operation Joshua. More than 1,000 so-called “orphans of circumstance” existed in Israel, children separated from their families still in Africa, until Operation Solomon took 14,000 more Jews to Israel in 1991.

In Operation Solomon, several Jewish organizations, including the state of Israel, concerned about the well-being of the sizable population of the remaining Ethiopian Jews (as the Ethiopian government was close to being topple), launched what would be the largest emigration of Ethiopian Jews to date. In only 36 hours, non-stop flights of 34 Israeli aircraft transported these 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

While Israel, of course, has its flaws – and, indeed there are many Israeli NGOs, and individuals, working hard to increase opportunities for Israelis of Ethiopian background, and working to end the lingering discrimination which continues to hamper such progress – Israel’s willingness to take immense political, economic, and military risks to rescue black Africans from poverty and war in one of the poorest and least politically stable regions in the world, and grant them immediate citizenship, is hard to reconcile with the facile narratives of Israel as a racist state.

In fact, Ethiopians weren’t the only Jews of color who were rescued from harm in their 62 year history. Operation Magic Carpet was an operation between June 1949 and September 1950 that brought 49,000 Yemenite Jews – as well as 500 Djiboutian and Eritrean Jews – to the nascent state. Today, Jews of color (Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America) actually account for over 50% of all Israeli Jews.

The fact is, you’d be hard-pressed to find any other ”progressive” Western nation that has done anything even approaching what the Jewish state has done in rescuing black Africans from danger and granting them immediate citizenship – an eternal open-invitation, or sorts, for Jews all over the world, of any race, ethnicity, or economic status, to come and join our national family.


However, many people – even those who don’t make the mistake of accusing Israel of racism as such – still have problems with the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, and ask, often quite innocently, why Israel must give immigration preference to those of Jewish descent, rather than to all, irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. To this, it is important to point out two things – first, that the historic mission of Israel (that is, one of its primary reason for being, is to be a refuge for Jews all over the world – as Herzl said, a state that would serve as the ”Guardian of the Jews”).

While we’ll never know the precise number of Jews who would have been saved during the Holocaust if Israel had become an independent state a decade or so prior to 1948, one other thing is for sure. As even the more progressive and tolerant nations at the time only allowed a trickle of Jews to immigrate, sealing the fate of millions attempting to escape the Nazi onslaught, the existence of a sovereign Jewish polity – with the means: economically, militarily, and diplomatically to protect Jews at home and abroad – is no mere religious, abstract, or ideologically driven desire. Rather, it is a rational and pragmatic approach to ensuring the safety and well-being of a small minority who has understandably tired of relying on the good-will of the enlightened nations of the world to ensure its well-being, and indeed its very (individual and collective) survival.

The second point that needs to be made is the common misconception that Israel is at all unique in granting citizenship preference to certain groups – whether based on differences in religion, ethnicity, or some sense of shared history and/or people-hood – over others. For instance, there are 53 nations who belong to an international group known as the Organization of Islamic Conference – that is, nations who self-identify as Muslim states, most of whose citizenship laws codify preference towards Muslims over non-Muslims.

However, even in the democratic West, nations have citizenship laws that give preference to those can claim some historic, ethnic, or linguistic connection with their nation. Many countries provide immigration privileges to individuals with ethnic/familial ties to these countries (so-called ”leges sanguinis”). As examples: Bulgaria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Poland, Romania, S. Korea, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine, all have citizenship laws based partly or largely on this principle – that is, a Right of Return of sorts for people determined to share a preferred common national trait. Apart from France, ”jus sanguinis” still is the preferred means of passing on citizenship in many continental European countries, with benefits of maintaining national unity (while not in any way necessarily denying equal civil rights for minorities within the country who have citizenship, but who don’t share such traits).

So, in fact, Israel is not at all unique in seeking to maintain a nation unified by a citizenry who share a similar historical memory and a common sense of political & moral destiny. Moreover, it important to remember that Israel undertook such extraordinary efforts to grant citizenship to over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews due in part to the rulings, by Israeli authorities, that they are indeed Jewish despite the fact that, genetically, they are more similar to other non-Jewish Ethiopians than to Israeli Jews, giving credence to theories that such Ethiopians converted to Judaism somewhere in the past, and are not, indeed, descendants from the original Jewish tribes – that is, they don’t share a ”leges sanguinis” with other Jews.

The immigration of Ethiopian Jews – and other ”Jews of Color” – over its 62 year history, is a lasting testament to the fact that race, as such, is not a consideration in determining who can become a citizen and contribute to the national enterprise of the Jewish people.

10 replies »

  1. Good article, Adam. It seems that there is more confusion about Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ than ever. As you say there is no nation in the world which does does give nationality preference to its own people. Bulgaria, Germany, Greece and Japan fast-track citizens born abroad according to ‘jus sanguinis’.
    It has to be said that it is not sufficient to be a Muslim to be granted citizenship in some Arab states. Palestinians do not qualify, thousands of Kurds are deprived of Syrian nationality and almost 100,000 ‘Bidoun’ mostly originally from Saudi Arabia do not qualify for citizenship in Bahrain and Kuwait.
    Non-Muslims start out with an even greater handicap. It was not sufficient for Jews born in some Arab countries to acquire local citizenship. In Egypt 40 percent of Jews were stateless. In Algeria, you had to have a Muslim father. This was one reason for the mass exodus of Jews after Algeria became independent in 1962.

  2. Excellent article by Uri Avnery’s critiquing Tutu on Israel:

    I AM afraid that this is an example of a faulty diagnosis leading to faulty treatment. To be precise: the mistaken assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles the South African experience leads to a mistaken choice of strategy.

    True, the Israeli occupation and the South African apartheid system have certain similar characteristics. In the West Bank, there are roads “for Israelis only”. But the Israeli policy is not based on race theories, but on a national conflict. A small but significant example: in South Africa, a white man and a black woman (or the other way round) could not marry, and sexual relations between them were a crime. In Israel there is no such prohibition. On the other hand, an Arab Israeli citizen who marries an Arab woman from the occupied territories (or the other way round) cannot bring his or her spouse to Israel. The reason: safeguarding the Jewish majority in Israel. Both cases are reprehensible, but basically different.

    In South Africa there was total agreement between the two sides about the unity of the country. The struggle was about the regime. Both Whites and Blacks considered themselves South Africans and were determined to keep the country intact. The Whites did not want partition, and indeed could not want it, because their economy was based on the labor of the Blacks.

    In this country, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have nothing in common – not a common national feeling, not a common religion, not a common culture and not a common language. The vast majority of the Israelis want a Jewish (or Hebrew) state. The vast majority of the Palestinians want a Palestinian (or Islamic) state. Israel is not dependent on Palestinian workers – on the contrary, it drives the Palestinians out of the working place. Because of this, there is now a world-wide consensus that the solution lies in the creation of the Palestinian state next to Israel.

    In short: the two conflicts are fundamentally different. Therefore, the methods of struggle, too, must necessarily be different.

    BACK TO the archbishop, an attractive person whom it is impossible not to like on sight. He told me that he prays frequently, and that his favorite prayer goes like this (I quote from memory):

    “Dear God, when I am wrong, please make me willing to see my mistake. And when I am right – please make me tolerable to live with.”

    http://engageonline.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/uri-avnerys-critique-of-desmond-tutu-and-neve-gordon/

  3. Duvidl’s London-based friend Yochanan is one of the Beta Israel from Gondar in Ethiopia. He always wears a little gold mezuzah pinned to the inside of his shirt breast pocket. He has some very definite views about The Guardian, Cif and all socialists, given the fact that Mengistu Hailemariam’s dergue assassins murdered his late father outside his home in Ethiopia.

    Yochanan is teaching Duvidl about the “begena” or Ethiopian harp reputed to be the type played by King David in the Bible and brought to ancient Ethiopia by the returning Queen of Sheba.

    Duvidl is hoping to buy one on his visit to Ethiopia next year. Meanwhile, he is practising on the “krar”, a six-string Ethiopian lyre. He is currently being taught the words of an Eritrean song or “mezmur” (like “zemer” in Hebrew,) which goes to the tune of “God Save the Queen”.

  4. Excellent article from Avnery. (even if I disagree with him about boycott of settlements. )He takes issue with Tutu in a way which is relevant to Tutu’s misconceptions. This has a greater chance of being effective than the frequent totally misdirected attacks on Tutu for being hypocritical, and guilty of double standards.as exampled by Stephen Rothbart on the Engage comments (and by the Son of Light in these comments)
    In fact, Tutu has been actively and vociferously involved in campaigns against Chinese human rights abuses in China and Tibet, Burma etc.
    Rothbart asks:
    “Where was Bishop Tutu’s call for a boycott on Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe”
    Tutu’s vehement criticism of Zimbabwe has in fact bypassed boycott to call for the more drastic step of military intervention in Zim.

  5. Compare Israel’s treatment not just of Ethiopian Jews with what is starting to happen now in Europe:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/oct/14/asylum-seekers-home-office-lifts-zimbabwe-deportation-ban

    The four-year-old ban on sending more than 10,000 failed asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe is to be lifted, the immigration minister, Damian Green, has announced.

    The Home Office minister said the time was right given the improved situation in Zimbabwe after the formation of an “inclusive” government in 2009.
    ———-
    If this was Israel and the Sudanese, I would expect articles from Freedman, Guarnieri, Shabi, Sherwood, Lerman and all …

    These people could starve if they are not simply killed on the spot. But its not Israel doing it so – that’s OK then!!

  6. May I ask the Israelis here whether there would be an objection to the active acceptance of Arab Christians as Israeli citizens, after vulnerable Jews of course, as an humanitarian response to their persecution by Muslims, as an example of Jewish magnanimity, and as a device to dilute the influence of those Israeli Arab Muslims who, in proportion to their closeness to Islam, are inevitably a threat to a Jewish state

  7. Epidermoid – Israel has in the past given citizenship to many different groups of people who needed a refuge, including Vietnamese boat people (the first country to do so), Lebanese Christians and refugees from Sudan.

  8. Israelinurse, thank you. I know of Israel’s generosity to others but my question was whether sanctuary for Christian Arabs might be more actively offered rather than see them forced by their Muslim neighbours from their homes to flee to America or wherever else they go?

  9. epidermoid

    I don’t get your question i.e. what you are aiming at

    are there international Christian organisations like the Vatican who lobby for enlarging the Christian minority in Israel?

    Shouldn’t the Vatican lobby predominantly catholic countries to be welcoming to Arab Christians to save them from their troubles?

    Do you hope that, if there are more Christian Arabs in Israel conversions of Muslim Arabs will happen?

    Last but not least are Christian Arabs 100 % partial to Jews or a Jewish state as their sovereign?