Ethiopian Jewry, Jewish Federations and Aspiration Unfulfilled

Photo taken in Ethiopia; courtesy The Heart of Israel (eJP archives).

By Howard M. Rieger

The recent fatal shooting of an unarmed Ethiopian Jew, 18-year-old Solomon Tekah, by an Israeli police officer, on the heels of a spate of other police shootings of Ethiopian Jews, finally touched off protests in the usually non-confrontational Ethiopian community, joined in by others across Israel.

What a distance we’ve traveled since 1984 when word leaked out about Operation Moses, a secret Israeli airlift that in 90 days spirited 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Seven years later that mission was dwarfed in comparison when Operation Solomon carried 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in under 36 hours.

Galvanized by the drama of these historic rescues, Jewish federations responded with special fundraising campaigns to assist in the absorption and education of our long-lost brothers and sisters who, in a matter of days, had made the journey from rural, pre-Talmudic Jewish villages to modern-day Israel.

We always knew that absorbing Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society would be a rough go. A strong patriarchal community that revered its elders and religious leaders, Ethiopian youth witnessed the marginalization of their most respected figures and suffered its negative impact on family structure and self esteem. Experts in what mattered most in their native land, their leaders were denigrated as uneducated and rendered irrelevant in Israel, the homeland they prayed all their lives to reach.

Further, Ethiopian youth were confounded by an educational system, police, and other authorities generally unwilling and unprepared to engage with them in culturally sensitive ways. The result: some persevered, made it, and continue to do so, while far too many were left by the wayside with few skills and no job prospects.

In 2005 I visited Lod, a poor city near Ben Gurion Airport. I asked the staff person at a youth center serving Ethiopians what she viewed as her greatest challenge. Her answer? “Eight shekel a bottle vodka, because it leads to drugs and drugs lead to crime.”

Over the years, more Ethiopians were brought to Israel – there are 150,000 today – but usually with a grudging acceptance by the Israeli government. Unlike Soviet Jews who were brought in quickly, Ethiopians were metered out slowly over the days, months and years.

Still, the fact that Israel was taking in Jews of color drove me, as president of United Jewish Communities (now JFNA) to propose the launch in 2005 of Operation Promise. A special $160 million fundraising campaign to further immigrant absorption into Israel, Operation Promise earmarked $100 million for Ethiopian Jewry and $60 million for Soviet Jews, the latter a political accommodation to achieve passage.

At a federation leadership meeting UJC convened in New York City to kick off Operation Promise, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged our full partnership in this historic resettlement effort.

By July 2006, Operation Promise raised $70 million but the Second Lebanon War intervened. Operation Promise was put on hold in favor of an Israel Emergency Campaign that raised an incredible $360 million to remediate the dislocations war created, from evacuating massive numbers of kids from the north to summer camps in safer areas, to providing bullet-proof vests for those in vulnerable communities, air conditioners and TVs for bomb shelters, trauma counseling, and financial aid for the victims. Once again we proved that during emergencies Jews unite and respond generously from their hearts as well as their checkbooks.

At the end of the war, when we tried to re-launch Operation Promise, we were met with stiff resistance. We couldn’t overcome the opposition of two major Jewish federations, one that said, “Ethiopians don’t resonate with our leadership,” and the other unwilling to participate from day one. When a top UJC leader reneged on his $100,000 pledge to Operation Promise, its fate was sealed.

I believe that together with the government of Israel we could have made the absorption of Ethiopian Jewry a story as compelling as their rescues during Operations Moses and Solomon.

We might have been able to increase high school graduation rates, college or technical school attendance and consequently employment. Additional support services and counseling could have helped more families avoid the indignities of sinking into an intractable underclass.

Donors want to be associated with relevant causes that set lofty goals. Contributors want to see a system that takes on new challenges and responds forcefully, not one that defaults to a defensive posture, which is exactly what we did when we dropped Operation Promise, because some were fearful of undermining the annual fundraising campaign.

History demonstrates that when we aspire to do more because the needs are compelling, the Jewish community responds magnificently and new contributors are attracted, as was the case with campaigns during the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Exodus of Soviet Jewry, Operations Moses and Solomon, and Hurricane Katrina. Operation Promise would have been no different.

There are equally compelling needs to Operation Promise awaiting our support, but the Jewish federations as a whole have shied away from special initiatives, content with a relatively stagnant annual campaign and a shrinking number of donors. While growing endowments appear to offset this reality, they represent the giving of the few, are generally earmarked for restricted purposes, and thus are unavailable for timely discretionary action. These trends have already weakened the influence of federations at home and abroad.

A wise lay leader with whom I worked over the years responding to my question of why he felt compelled to keep pushing to grow his company when he already headed a huge operation, simply said, “Howard, if you don’t grow, you die.”

We can’t change history but we can learn from our mistakes. Dropping Operation Promise was a mistake, because of the urgent needs of Ethiopian Jews that were left unmet, and because of the aspiration for greatness that was left unfulfilled.

Howard M. Rieger was President/CEO, Jewish Federations of North America, 2004 – 2009.