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Out of Africa: The Rescue of Ethiopian Jews

Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue Of the Ethiopian Jews

By Stephen Spector

Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $28.


French Premier Georges Clemenceau once said, “War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.” Had he read Stephen Spector’s new book on Operation Solomon, he would not have hesitated to qualify the rescue of Ethiopian Jews as fit for his observation.

On Friday morning, May 26, 1991, Israeli Air Force planes were circling in the Addis Ababa sky; 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were circling the Israeli embassy, ready to charge toward the airport; rebel army forces were closing in on the besieged capital — yet the chief Ethiopian official, Kassa Kebede, ordered the Israeli chief negotiator, Uri Lubrani, to stop all actions. The Ethiopian government was demanding its promised price of $35 million in advance, here and now.

What followed was a drama-cum-comedy of errors: Lubrani had no intention of paying up front and, in any case, the Ethiopian minister of finance did not know his own government’s bank account number. The operation was almost aborted, and Lubrani, desperately searching for a convincing argument, recalls asking the minister, “Can you conceive that I represent a people and a government that will deceive you on a miserable $35 million?” The minister replied, “I believe you.” Permission was granted for the operation to resume.

And the rest of it is history, one would guess?

Well, not so simple. Years later, when Spector, a professor of English at the State University of New York, was reconstructing the account of that dramatic moment, he found that each one of the participants had a different recollection. Kebede’s story contradicted Lubrani’s. Eli Eliezri, leading operator of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia, tells a version that corroborates Lubrani’s. Ethiopian finance minister Bekele Tamrat later denied some of Lubrani’s and Kebede’s most important claims. And Israeli ambassador Asher Naim, who was not present at the money discussion, offered an even more curious version to this episode in his 2003 book, “Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews.”

So what happened? The reader, like the author, is left unsure. As one Soviet historian during Stalin’s regime once sighed, “It is very difficult to write history when the past keeps constantly changing.”

As elusive as history may be, Spector strived to write the ultimate book on Operation Solomon. “I was showing some chutzpah of my own, having agreed to write a book on this subject.

I was no expert on Ethiopian Jews at that point,” he admits disarmingly in the preface.

As a JDC executive, I was involved in the planning of Operation Solomon (and was in fact interviewed by Spector for this book). With zero degrees of separation, I cannot claim objectivity, but offer my intimate familiarity with the facts as a mitigating compensation to readers. With that in mind, I can say that after launching an eight-year, tri-continental archival odyssey, meticulously reconfirmed in 200 interviews, Spector leaves no question unasked, and almost none unanswered. The 80 pages of notes, bibliography, glossary, appendix and index support his 200 pages of text suffice to crown him an expert on the circumstance of Operation Solomon.

The end result of his work is an impressive exercise in forensic documentary, with skeletons pulled out of unknown closets, X-rayed, dusted and added to our collective knowledge. Among those are Ethiopian officials and their greed, Israeli officials occupied with undermining each other, well-intentioned American Jews whose actions led Ethiopian Jews to tragedy, and Jewish Agency officials busy with their rivalry with Israeli government officials. Not to mention secret deliberations about whether to sell Jews for money or exchange them for arms, and endless intrigue and sabotage woven into idealistic determination and devotion.

The pace of the narrative is that of a fast-moving thriller. “The Jews of Ethiopia became living chips in a secret game of political poker,” Spector observes. “The hands of this game were played in Addis. But the cards often were dealt in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in Washington, New York and Illinois, as well as in Moscow, London and Khartoum.” Soon we realize that by the beginning of 1991 there was a serious plot against Ethiopian Jews.

Step after step, the author takes us to all those sites. We meet Lubrani, the indefatigable Israeli negotiator who for months navigated the clandestine path toward Operation Solomon. He did it so skillfully, with such intelligence-style low profile, that Michael Schneider, the JDC’s executive vice president, once appreciatively nicknamed him “George Smiley” after John le Carré’s famous master-spy character. (After reading how Lubrani had to spin his yarn with the Ethiopian officials, one may liken him more to a latter-day le Carré character, “The Tailor of Panama.”)

Schneider, as well as JDC staffers, are highlighted in never-before-revealed details and given a well-documented credit for their work. Recognition, long overdue, is given also to Malcolm Hoenlein and the role of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in securing the American administration’s support for the operation. Hoenlein knocked on — and opened up — the doors of key figures in Washington, D.C., at a deadlock point of the rescue efforts. Regretfully, Spector gives only minimal personal data about the key heroes of his story. However, there is enough material to suggest that all three — Lubrani, Schneider and Hoenlein — each deserve a full biography to unveil their rich but undisclosed careers. Regardless, readers are finally made to understand that never before did so many good people combine such extraordinary skills to rescue so many distressed others in a spectacular 36-hour show of solidarity and force.

Yet the greatest service of this book to history may be not in the questions it answers, but in the question it dares asking: Why was Operation Solomon, a costly, dangerous endeavor, needed at all?

The answer, according to Spector, pulls another skeleton out of our communal Jewish closet: Because well-intentioned North American Jewish advocacy groups removed Ethiopian Jews from their villages, exposing them to health risks and refugee life that resulted ultimately in an emergency airlift.

Was the danger in the Beta Israel villages so compelling that it justified moving an entire population? In his meticulous forensic style, Spector destroys, one by one, each argument given at the time for the exodus of Ethiopian Jews from their villages: “Contrary to claims being made in the West…There was no significant famine in the Jewish area…Nor did they leave because they were in a war zone…No Jewish villagers had been caught in military crossfire…Their Christian neighbors did not drive them out…They did not leave because of illness, either.”

The chapters that touch upon this issue are uncomfortable to read. It is a harsh suggestion that the plot against Ethiopian Jews was not just the making of evil dictators, but possibly originated from a misguided, although idealistic intervention of North American Jewish advocates. Was it a recurrent case of the white Ugly American who knows better what is good for native black Africans? Spector lets this issue surface into the dramatic narration every once in a while. He does it tactfully, sensitive to the sensational potential of such accusations. Nevertheless, his book ought to trigger a humbling soul-searching among all nongovernmental organizations that face a similar situation in Third World countries every day. An honest attempt to revisit this period by American Jewish advocacy groups may be the best contribution of this book.

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