Architect of Ethiopian airlift warns of emigre ‘underclass’
Micha Feldmann says the job of absorption is not yet completed
Speaking in Livingston, an architect of the mass migration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel described the mission he helped initiate 29 years before, almost to the day.
On Nov. 21, 1984, Israeli diplomat Micha Feldmann greeted a planeload of 283 Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport, the first of more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews who would travel from Sudan to Israel in the following three months.
Later, as Israeli consul to Ethiopia and head of the Jewish Agency for Israel mission there, Feldmann would help lead Operation Solomon, a 1991 endeavor that brought more than 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel over the course of 36 hours.
In his talk at Temple Beth Shalom, Feldmann, author of On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus, related his role in the rescue, but also described the challenges faced by Israel’s 130,000 Ethiopians today.
“These are black people coming into a white society,” said Feldmann, who serves as director of the Ethiopian division of SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center. “They need that we embrace them. We tell them ‘welcome,’ but they do not feel that they are welcome.”
Feldman described how Ethiopian Jews still struggle with absorption on a daily basis, with only half of the eligible members of the population currently enrolled in Israeli schools. While a large percentage of Ethiopian youth join the army, many attempt to drop out in order to find ways to support their families. Parents consistently struggle to adapt to working in Israel’s advanced economy, he said.
Feldmann also said that while many Israelis accept Ethiopians as members of their society, they do not actively accept them as equals. He said he encourages his fellow citizens to help the Ethiopians reach their potential.
“We can’t allow ourselves to have a black underclass in Israel,” he said.
Feldmann described the careful and secretive negotiations, begun in the mid-1980s, to facilitate the mass aliya of the African country’s isolated Jewish population, then clustered largely in Gondar.
After five years of waiting and planning, the Ethiopian government agreed to allow for the transport of all of the Jews from the town in exchange for $36 million and on the condition that the airlift would involve only unmarked planes. In May 1991, thousands of people were flown out of Addis Ababa on jam-packed 747s.
Operation Solomon, though the biggest, was not the only extraction process that Feldmann ran. He helped transport Ethiopian children to Israeli boarding schools, and maintained detailed records in order to reconnect parents with their children. Reuniting extended families became a priority of the absorption effort, he said.
“You would imagine when we’d meet they would bring up issues like housing, health, education, employment — none of those,” he said. “The only issue that they would speak about, was ‘Where are our families?’ They described their situation as if someone had taken a knife and cut their families into two.”
Earlier that evening, Feldmann thanked leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ in Whippany for their support of the Ethiopian aliya and absorption. Feldmann, who was born in Germany and lived there again after World War II, recalled how the full impact of the Ethiopian aliya struck him on a visit to Dachau.
“If Israel had been founded only 10 years earlier, there wouldn’t have been an Auschwitz, and I would have had my grandparents,” he said. “Thank God I was able to be part of making history.”
Feldmann’s talk was sponsored by the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center.
At Temple Beth Shalom, congregant Stuart Wainberg said he recently spent time in Ethiopia with Feldmann as a member of a Greater MetroWest mission. “Micha is one of the world’s greatest witnesses to the story,” Wainberg said. “He followed his heart on a dangerous and emotional roller-coaster that climaxed with Operation Solomon.”