A personalized account of the airlift of Jews - from Ethiopia

Rescue: The Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews, by Ruth Gruber. New York: Atheneum, 1987. 224 pp. $19.95. For four decades, Ruth Gruber has been a witness to and a reporter on the plight of Jewish refugees. As Harold Ickes's special envoy in 1944, she accompanied the only boatload of Jewish refugees allowed temporary asylum in the United States during World War II.

Since then she has covered the establishment of the state of Israel, the ``Magic Carpet'' movement of Yemenite Jews, the emigration of Soviet Jews, and, most recently, Operation Moses, the removal of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984. Of this last event Gruber notes, with a bit of hyperbole, that it was ``the first time in history white people were transporting black men and women and children out of Africa not to be sold but to be saved.''

The people she writes about in ``Rescue'' had lived with their faith for 2,700 years. According to national legend, descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, they were long known as ``Falashas,'' an Amharic word meaning ``landless''; it also came to mean ``foreigner,'' ``stranger,'' or ``outsider.'' They called themselves Beta Israel, of the House of Israel.

Gruber spent many months meeting with Israel's newest citizens, observing and interviewing them from the Galilee to the Negev Desert. She also made several trips to Africa to get a better sense of who they were, how they related to other Ethiopians (Christians, Muslims, and animists), and why they were so eager to make aliyah, to ``go up to Jerusalem.''

This book tells the story of persistent commitment to an ancient faith based solely on the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, by those who long believed that all Jews were black like themselves and that they might well be the last ones on earth. It also describes the discrimination they suffered in their old homeland and, though Gruber only touches upon it briefly (too briefly, I feel), in their Promised Land as well, where, to some, they were still outsiders.

In four interwoven sections, Gruber personalizes the history of the ``Falashas,'' the politics of their rescue, and the problems of their absorption in Israel by focusing on a number of individuals - some, teen-agers, like Daniel and Atilash, who are among the first to make the trek from the province of Gondar to the distant Sudanese border and then to Israel; some, old-timers like Yona, who had been brought to Europe as a young man to study and had returned to Africa to become a leader in the community. Others figure prominently in her story: Emperor Haile Selassie and his Marxist successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam; Jaafar al-Nimeiry, president of Sudan during the secret airlift that was first coordinated by the Israelis using Belgian-based planes and later by the CIA; American refugee program officials who pressured the Sudanese to cooperate; and a host of Israelis including Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Yehuda Dominitz and his colleagues in the Jewish Agency, and representatives of the Ministry of Immigration and of Mossad, Israeli Intelligence.

There are many fascinating vignettes: the drama of the discovery by European Jews that, indeed, black Jews did live in Ethiopia as had long been rumored; the wrenching decisions of Daniel and Atilash to leave their parents and strike out on their own; the secret meetings between traditional antagonists to cut a deal allowing the Jews to leave the Sudanese refugee camps in exchange for various promises of economic assistance; the bittersweet experiences once the exiles have ``returned'' to Jerusalem. Yet the book's strengths are, in some ways, its weakness.

While Gruber's narrative style provides a keen sense of the tension surrounding every step of the rescue, the book also has a biblical movie script quality, in which there is little ambiguity as to the righteousness of the cause; and the faithful, no matter how poor, bedraggled, and sorrowful, are so heroic that we know from the start they will win in the end.

``Rescue'' is much more a loving paean to the Ethiopian Jews and their saviors than a critical study of a complex operation taking place in the midst of a far wider geopolitical controversy. The latter has yet to be written.

Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.

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