Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

On Falashas and Punk diplomats

E.K.M. Yakpo

In its characteristic way the Israeli Government let it be known that the Falashas were being persecuted in Ethiopia for being Jews and therefore the airlift was a humanitarian act.
The Ethiopian famine catastrophe has aroused sympathy quite unparalleled in recent times. Public subscription has raised fantastic sums of money and even children have emptied their piggy boxes. Governments all over the world (nearly all over the world), have donated money and supplies towards this humanitarian effort.

Alone the Government of Israel has approached the crisis in a strikingly different manner, by focussing attention on a small Ethiopian community, Beta Israel, commonly known as the Falashas. It is said that the Falashas are Jews, "black Jews" and yet their Jewishness has always been a controversy in Israel. Even at the present moment, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi (European Jewish Chief Rabbi), would not recognise them as Jews unless they first converted. Yet the Israeli Government spent $300 million, donated by American Zionists, to literally abduct these people from their homeland and dump them in Israel, there to embark on a new life, in many ways as dramatic as the one they had left behind.

The methods used by Israeli agents to induce the Falashas to make the journey to the Sudan to be airlifted, has been, putting it mildly, controversial. Relief officials, whose primary task was to aid the victims of the famine, were recruited as agents of the Israeli Government, to spread the word to the Falashas to make the hazardous journey to the Sudan. Ethiopian nationality and immigration laws were blatantly ignored, while Israeli agents played on the religious frailties of a hungry people. In its characteristic way the Israeli Government let it be known that the Falashas were being persecuted in Ethiopia for being Jews and therefore, the airlift was a humanitarian act.

Strange that Israel should make such a claim. Back in the days of Haile Selasie, when most Ethiopians were mere serfs, the Falashas were actually oppressed. Not only, as serfs, were they not allowed to own land, but unlike serfs, they could not even work as farm labourers. Yet the Israeli Government collaborated closely with the Haile Selasie autocracy. There were so many Israelis in Addis Ababa that a Jewish school had to be built for their children. There was no talk of the Falashas being Jews or that they were being oppressed on racial grounds. Since the Ethiopian revolution all serfs have been emancipated and land has been distributed to all of them including, for the first time in 3,000 years, the Falashas, and Falashas have risen to cabinet posts in the Government. But the Israeli Government managed to discover the persecution of the Falashas and felt obliged, as a Jewish nation, to act.

The truth of the matter is that the Falashas were not being oppressed in present day Ethiopia and that the Israeli record on support for repressive regimes is appalling. The Government of Israel collaborates closely with the apartheid government of South Africa, supplying it with all kinds of weapons, knowing full well what they are needed for. It is even rumoured that Israel has supplied South Africa with the know how to build the nuclear bomb and Jewish immigration to South Africa is among the highest.

Oriental Jews constantly dream of the old life in Morocco,Yemen or Iraq; countries which have psychologically remained home. It will not be long before the Falashas begin to dream nostalgically of the highlands of Ethiopia and the peaceful lives they had once led.

Israel has supported Somoza and now works together with the CIA and the Moonies to overthrow the Sandinista Government. When Jimmy Carter refused to supply Guatemala with arms, on account of that country's appalling human rights record, Israel quickly stepped in to fill the gap. It appears that persecution and oppression are deplorable only when the victims are Jews.

Whether the Falashas are Jews or not is anyone's guess. Racially and culturally, they are indistinguishable from other Ethiopians but the Israelis seem to suffer from a rescue complex. As Shalom Cohen, a former member of the Knesset pointed out, "Zionism having failed to save the Jews of Europe, found itself after the war, without a useful objective. To give a moral justification for the existence of their state, the Zionist looked for a way to "save" other Jews. The only Jews with whom this was possible, were those of the Arab world." Now it is the turn of African Jews to be "saved."

What is yet to be explained is why the Israelis themselves had chosen to break the story while the airlift was still in progress. Why did the chief of the Jewish Agency's immigration department release contradictory figures, while less than half the Falashas had actually reached Israel? At the time, more than twice the number which had been "rescued" were still in refugee camps in the Sudan, including some relatives of the "rescued." Indeed quite a large number were still on the death trail to the Sudan to be airlifted to the "promised land." But even more important are the motives of the Israelis in airlifting a small and potentially vulnerable community to Israel.

The fact that the Falashas are being settled on the West Bank justifies the suspicion that the Israelis are looking for manpower to settle the occupied territories. Or is it a cheap and docile labour force that the Israelis need? The Sephardim (the Oriental Jews), already occupy a low level on the Israeli social ladder, the Falashas will occupy an even lower level in a society which is as fiercely racist as that of Israel. Already a Falasha regiment has been formed in the Israeli army complete with Amharic speaking NCOs. These will be the cannon fodder in future wars.

The arrival of the Falashas has not been well received by all Israelis, some towns flatly refused to take them. But even their usefulness to the Israeli Government soon became apparent. In times of serious economic depression, Israel has always resorted to some bold and spectacular act which would temporarily divert attention from the economic incompetence of its rulers. The 1967 War, the Entebbe raid, the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the invasion of Lebanon and now the "rescue" of the Falashas are all calculated to achieve maximum propaganda effect.

The reaction in the Western press was predictable an exuberance of enthusiasm. As if to exorcise their guilt for their shameful treatment of Jews in the past, the West has supported every single Israeli exploit, except perhaps the invasion of Lebanon. But it is inexplicable why the African press has not come out condemning the "rescue". After all this has been a blatant interference with the sovereignty of Ethiopia. Africa has had its fair share of foreign intervention, from colonialists, slave raiders, mercenaries and now from Israeli rescuers. Just as Jews are sensitive about persecution, Africans are also sensitive about foreign intervention and the African press should not be afraid to say so. Yet there was hardly any criticism, if anything it was subdued admiration.

Oriental Jews constantly dream of the old life in Morocco, Yemen or Iraq; countries which have psychology remained home. It will not be long before the Falashas begin to dream nostalgically of the highlands of Ethiopia and the peaceful lives they had once led.

And that brings me to some of the attempts being made to raise money in aid of the famine.

One such effort has been initiated by a certain Mr Geldof, a punk rock musician who usually plays with the pop group Boom Town Rats (how appropriate). Mr Geldof, along with other punk rockers, such as Boy George, have released the "Band Aid" record which has reportedly raised £8 million. This is all very good and everyone is grateful to Mr Geldof. Only it appears that Mr Geldof got carried away with his success at raising money and so he decided to go on a punk diplomatic mission to Ethiopia and advise the Ethiopian Government how to govern their country. So he tells them for example, that the colour which is appropriate for socialism is grey not red. And they were to "get their act together" and stop transporting the famine victims in aeroplanes to the relief centres. These "ancient and beautiful people" have never seen an aeroplane so it is bound to cause psychological damage. And as is the custom of European Jews, Mr Geldof had to remind the Ethiopian Government that it all brought back memories of Jews being herded into concentration camps. Of course our punk diplomat forgot to mention the little incident of the Israeli airlift of Falashas all the way to Israel.

This is one of the dangers of receiving hand-outs, it always comes with unsolicited advice and often with humiliation. But a humiliated person never forgets his humiliation and harbours resentment all his life. It is perhaps true to say that the giver of aid needs to be more disciplined than the person who receives aid.

talking drums 1985-02-11 open letter to rawlings