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Interview'I was taught they did nothing, we just came and took them'

Before the airlifts, Ethiopian Jews did the heavy lifting to get out of Africa

Documentary ‘With No Land,’ featured at the Other Israel Film Festival earlier this month, puts long-overdue focus on the resilient immigrant community rather than its ‘saviors’

  • New Ethiopian immigrants boarding an aircraft en route from Addis Ababa to Israel during Operation Solomon, 1991. (Natan Alpert/GPO)
    New Ethiopian immigrants boarding an aircraft en route from Addis Ababa to Israel during Operation Solomon, 1991. (Natan Alpert/GPO)
  • Ethiopian Jews arrive in Israel waving Israeli flags in this still from the documentary 'With No Land.' (Courtesy of the Other Israel Film Festival)
    Ethiopian Jews arrive in Israel waving Israeli flags in this still from the documentary 'With No Land.' (Courtesy of the Other Israel Film Festival)
  • Former US president George H.W. Bush shakes the hand of Ethiopian activist Rahamim Elazar. (Courtesy Black and White Films)
    Former US president George H.W. Bush shakes the hand of Ethiopian activist Rahamim Elazar. (Courtesy Black and White Films)
  • A still from the documentary 'With No Land.' (Courtesy of the Other Israel Film Festival)
    A still from the documentary 'With No Land.' (Courtesy of the Other Israel Film Festival)
  • New immigrants from Ethiopia shortly after disembarking from the plane as part of Operation Solomon, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo/ Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)
    New immigrants from Ethiopia shortly after disembarking from the plane as part of Operation Solomon, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo/ Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)
  • Berchko Adela as a young girl in Ethiopia, before Operation Moses. Now 68, she is a married mother of five and lives in Ashdod, Israel. (Doron Bacher/via JTA)
    Berchko Adela as a young girl in Ethiopia, before Operation Moses. Now 68, she is a married mother of five and lives in Ashdod, Israel. (Doron Bacher/via JTA)
  • Then-Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres with a child brought to Israel in the 1984 Operation Moses, which brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel (Defense Ministry Archives)
    Then-Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres with a child brought to Israel in the 1984 Operation Moses, which brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel (Defense Ministry Archives)

Thirty years ago, in 1991, Israel pulled off a remarkable rescue mission. Operation Solomon brought around 15,000 members of the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel in under 24 hours in the middle of a civil war.

While the rescue was credited to the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad spy agency, it also depended upon behind-the-scenes work from activists, including many Ethiopian Jews. Some found buses to bring coreligionists from their home province of Gondar to the capital of Addis Ababa. Others worked with Israeli diplomatic staff stationed in Ethiopia. Still others pressured then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir until he finally greenlit the airlift.

Grassroots activism by and on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry stretches back to the 1970s and extends to today. Members of the 2,000-year-old Beta Israel community remain in Ethiopia despite Operation Solomon and its similarly dramatic 1984 predecessor, Operation Moses. A separate community, the Falash Mura — Jews forcibly converted to Christianity who wish to return to their ancestral faith — has also been frustrated in its pursuit of immigration to Israel.

The ongoing saga of the Ethiopian Jewish community is chronicled in a new documentary film, “With No Land,” directed by filmmakers and spouses Aalam-Warqe Davidian and Kobi Davidian.

Aalam-Warqe Davidian brings her personal background as an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant to Israel who arrived during Operation Solomon, while Kobi Davidian, a native of Jerusalem, long worked to understand the nuances of the overall story.

The film premiered on Israel’s Kan broadcaster on May 24, the 30th anniversary of Operation Solomon, and recently played at the Other Israel Film Festival. It will continue its festival run with showings at the upcoming New York, Miami, and Cincinnati Jewish film festivals.

“I would like to really create awareness and conversation,” Aalam-Warqe Davidian told The Times of Israel in a joint Zoom interview with her husband.

Wife-and-husband filmmaking duo Aalam-Warqe Davidian, left, and Kobi Davidian. (Courtesy)

Kobi Davidian increased his own awareness through an archive he directed and produced, Memories of Ethiopia. The collection of 100 testimonies from Ethiopian Jews challenged his previous beliefs about how the community got to Israel.

“I was astonished to hear a lot of stories about their work and their struggle to come to Israel,” Davidian said. “I was completely shocked… What I learned [growing up] is that they didn’t do anything, we just came and took them.”

The documentary presents a much different story of the Ethiopian activists who paved the way for the epic rescues that followed, with many giving their perspective through filmed interviews. Their efforts span a turbulent period of Ethiopian history, shown through remarkable footage from Israeli, Ethiopian and French TV archives — from the twilight of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign to his overthrow in 1974 by pro-communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam to the collapse of communism and subsequent fall of Mengistu in a civil war.

Such efforts continue today, in the midst of a new civil war; the film shows Ethiopian Jews arriving to Israel by plane this year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most wearing masks. Disembarking, they wave Israeli flags and are greeted by Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who speaks with the filmmakers about her own Ethiopian Jewish background.

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog (2nd-R) and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (C) greet Ethiopian immigrants arriving at Ben Gurion Airport on March 11, 2021. (The Jewish Agency)

As shown in the film, activists have had to face antisemitism in Ethiopia as well as Israeli racism. Aalam-Warqe Davidian cites a letter that is shown in the film from Chanan Inor, the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia during the Selassie era. In the letter, Inor worries about the arrival of “thousands of primitive, illiterate, sick, oppressed people” to Israel.

More recently, Israel’s Immigration and Population Authority issued a report on November 7 saying that there are “serious doubts regarding the… relationship to Jewish ethnicity” for the majority of a group of 61 Ethiopians who fled to Israel in the last several months. The National Security Agency said 10,000 Ethiopians awaiting approval to come to Israel were in no immediate danger, but that there was a “threat” of non-Jewish Ethiopians slipping into Israel as economic refugees. Tamano-Shata said the reports should be tossed in the trash, and that they were issued by political actors trying to prevent the rescue of the remaining Ethiopian Jews.

Even after Israel opened up its doors to Ethiopian Jewish immigration decades ago, some religious authorities were still not ready to recognize the new arrivals as Jews. In a particularly wrenching moment, activist Adiso Masala says that after arriving in Israel in the 1980s, he was circumcised after being summoned to a clinic ostensibly for vaccinations. He quotes a rabbi in Israel saying that Ethiopian Jews “must be converted like other Gentiles.” After 32 days of protests, Israel halted the policy of circumcision for men and immersion for women.

The film also raises questions about Operation Moses, in which 6,500 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel, with 1,600 more coming three years later. Although many were rescued, 1,800 died during the journey from Ethiopia to the rescue site in Sudan. In the airlift, many Ethiopian Jewish families were separated, with some members coming to Israel and others left behind.

Illustrative: Ethiopian Jews aboard an Israeli plane during Operation Moses. (Screen grab from The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive)

Throughout the film, the directors examine the issue of Jews who remained in Africa for various reasons. This includes the continuing saga of the Derebe family. In December of 2020, Matriarch Yitayish Derebe was given notice that in two to three weeks she would be allowed to move to Israel with six of her seven children. The seventh, Bethe Derebe, was refused permission and is now in the province of Gondar, where she is married and raising a family, still hoping to get to Israel. Located in the north of Ethiopia, Gondar is perilously close to the Tigray province, where civil war has raged for over a year.

“It’s the same story,” Kobi Davidian said. “Jews wanting to come to Israel, fleeing to come to Israel, the State of Israel not wanting them for several reasons.”

The first wave of Ethiopian Jewish activists included Avraham Yerday, who faced an unsupportive Jewish Agency in his quest to bring coreligionists to Israel in the 1970s; and Fesaha Maharat, who did dangerous work smuggling the Beta Israel into Sudan in the run-up to Operation Moses.

Aalam-Warqe Davidian said she appreciated “the way [Yerday] understood the political map in trying to… really move the powers in an international way,” while Maharat “didn’t know if he would get to Israel, but he did this because he believed he needed to find some way for his community to get to Israel. [He put] himself in a very dangerous situation.”

The activists profiled in the film are largely from the Ethiopian community with a few exceptions, including US-based Susan Pollack, who spoke with the directors over Zoom. She was a member of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) who traveled to Ethiopia to help the Beta Israel emigrate when things looked bleakest during the civil war in 1991.

“Many people on the board [of the AAEJ] were Holocaust survivors,” Pollack says in the film. “‘Never again’ meant Jews anywhere in the world who are alone and unaided.”

“She didn’t grow up [in Ethiopia], she didn’t know the country,” Kobi Davidian marveled. “She did crazy, crazy things for the Jewish community in Ethiopia. I have to say, she needs to get a Nobel Prize or something, as I see it.”

Aalam-Warqe Davidian credits Pollack, the AAEJ and other American organizations with a substantial contribution: “They made it happen, they made the plans of Ethiopian [community] leaders come together.”

For Operation Solomon, that happened unexpectedly.

The fall of communism ended dictator Mengistu’s support by the Soviet Union. Desperate for help against the rebels, he sought a connection to Washington, DC, through Israel. The moment seemed favorable to get Ethiopian Jews out of the war-torn country.

Former US president George H.W. Bush shakes the hand of Ethiopian activist Rahamim Elazar. (Courtesy Black and White Films)

A network of activists sprang into action. While most transportation had been commandeered for the war, they found buses to bring the Beta Israel to Addis Ababa and forged papers to ensure they could get out of the country. After more than a decade helping his coreligionists, Maharat himself needed to be rescued when he was imprisoned for his work and feared for his life. Pollack intervened, and he was freed and allowed to move to Israel.

Operation Solomon itself is revisited in all of its drama — from tense, last-minute negotiations with Mengistu’s government in its final days to tearful, emotion-filled reunions among Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel.

Yet the filmmakers don’t forget the Ethiopian Jews who are still left behind.

“I really hope [the activists] will get recognized, well-deserved recognition,” Kobi Davidian said, adding that he also hopes that Ethiopian Jews remaining in Africa will “finally come to Israel, will finally finish, [and] that’s it, we won’t need to make more films about it.”

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