Sunday, April 6, 2008

Review of the Day: Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes

Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews by Howard M. Lenhoff is a mildly tedious book about a fascinating subject. Lenhoff missed an opportunity to reach a broad audience when he intentionally focused on the poisonously dull “development of the infrastructure” of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.

Telling the story of the Ethiopian Jews from the perspective of the American volunteer organization that did much to rescue them is an interesting take on the subject. Using the history of the AAEJ as a framework for the story of the Ethiopian Jews would have been fine, and perhaps this is what Lenhoff intended. But the narrative gets bogged down in administrative minutia at the expense of the bigger story.

Apparently intended to suggest that the AAEJ could be used as a model, several dozen references to the AAEJ as a “grassroots” organization undertaking “grassroots” efforts are salted throughout the early part of the book. These references feel like they were added later, perhaps at an editor’s request to try to appeal to a broader audience. They peter out as the story gets going, which only leaves another thematic loose end.

The major problem with Black Jews is that it presupposes a level of familiarity with the subject that is well beyond that of a general audience. Only reading the book from cover to cover, including the appendixes, allows the reader to piece together a general history of the Ethiopian Jews, or “Falasha.” There have been black African Jews in Ethiopia since biblical times. When the modern state of Israel was formed and welcomed all Jews to return and claim citizenship, a controversy arose over whether the Falasha were “real” Jews entitled to Israeli citizenship. The issue concerned whether the Jews in Ethiopia were descendants of Abraham, and therefore entitled to citizenship, or descendants of converts.

In the 1970s, religious and government leaders in Israel determined that the Jews in Ethiopia were real Jews. Then began the lengthy process of bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. At first, only several hundred of the Falasha came to Israel each year, mostly through Sudan where they were refugees from government and social persecution. In the early 1980s, efforts to rescue the Falasha intensified, culminating in the spectacular “Operation Moses” airlift of over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan. Efforts to rescue Jews remaining in Ethiopia continued through the 1980s, until the 1991 “Operation Solomon” brought over 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel in less than 36 hours. The AAEJ was active in efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Ethiopian Jews, organize volunteers, raise money, pressure the Israeli and American governments, and even organize rescues.  

Black Jews would have been substantially improved by providing such a thumbnail sketch early on. Instead, it launches directly into details about Lenhoff’s experiences in Israel that brought the Ethiopian Jews to his attention. Distracted by basic questions such as “Who are these Ethiopian Jews?” and “Why do they want to come to Israel?” it is difficult to track the narrative thread of these loosely organized anecdotes. The story develops substantially in later sections of the book, when Lenhoff switches to a more straightforwardly chronological presentation.

In the absence of a general history about Ethiopian Jews and their immigration to Israel, Lenhoff’s book is worth wading through. Hopefully someone will undertake a comprehensive treatment of this worthwhile subject.

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