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Conversation with... Asher Naim
January 21, 2004 by Howard Blas

Ambassador advocates for Ethiopian Jewry

Ambassador Asher Naim has been a member of the Israeli diplomatic corps for 43 years. His distinguished career has included postings in such places as Japan, Kenya, Uganda, Finland and Korea.

In Tokyo (1956-60), he was cultural and press attache. While in Japan, he also taught Hebrew at Tokyo University and taught the Emperor’s brother. In Kenya and Uganda (1961-64), he laid important foundations for Israel’s relationship with Africa, which would help Israel during the raid on Entebbe. From 1968-73, Naim served in Washington, D.C., as assistant to Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin. From 1976-81, Naim was the consul general of Israel in Philadelphia. He returned to Washington in 1984, served as ambassador to Finland from 1988-90, and was ambassador to Ethiopia from 1990-91.

In 1991, he negotiated “Operation Solomon,” the airlift which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He recently spoke at Congregation Kol Ami in Cheshire and at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven. Naim is the author of “Saving the Lost Tribe: The Restoration and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews.”

Naim was born in Libya and has a complex story of his own family’s aliyah to Israel just after his bar mitzvah. They traveled from Tripoli to Suez by truck, and then by train to Haifa. Naim fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and has a master’s of jurisprudence from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Following his aforementioned service in Ethiopia, Naim was appointed ambassador to the UN in 1991, and he was the first Israeli ambassador to Korea (1992-95). Naim retired from the Foreign Service in September 1995, and continues his work on behalf of Ethiopian Jews.

Q: How and when did the world learn of the Jews of Ethiopia?

A: We became aware of the Jews of Ethiopia in 1840. By 1974, they were officially recognized as Jews. Due to Communist rule in Ethiopia after the fall of Haile Selaisse, there was no way (at that time) to bring them to Israel.

Q: What events took place to allow the Ethiopian Jews to come to Israel?

A: Ethiopia has a famine every four years. In 1984, the United Nations put bases in neighboring Sudan for Ethiopian refugees many who came were Jews.

Also, in 1989 and 1990, the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first Gulf War brought about new possibilities for contact with Ethiopia and the Jews. With the aid of (then) CIA director, George Bush (Sr.), thousands of Jews were brought first to Europe and then to Israel. While 4,000 sadly died in the desert of maladies, killings, etc., 8,000 eventually made it safely to Israel. In 1990, Israel opened an embassy in Ethiopia. Jews marched to the embassy and said, “Take us to Israel.” But the communist regime said, “No.” Because of rebel attacks and various other difficulties, the Ethiopians turned to the United States, asking for money and arms in exchange for the release of the Ethiopian Jews. During the negotiations (which took place between 1989 and March, 1991), between 500 and 1,000 Jews were allowed to go to Israel each month. When Israeli Prime Minister Shamir and others began to suspect that the rebels would win the conflict and that the Jews would be killed, he stepped up efforts to get the Jews freed. Mengitsu Miriam, Ethiopia’s president, said he’d allow the Jews to leave in exchange for $100 million. We offered $20 million. A deal was made for $35 million. We told leaders of the Jewish community that we needed $35 million for the next day, and they delivered $35 million was delivered to Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. But Mengitsu had escaped the day before. We went to (now) President George Bush Sr., and he sent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz to help with the negotiations. In May, we realized it was now or never. We got the okay on a Thursday. We started the Operation at 10am on Friday. We were finished by 11am on Saturday. 14,200 Jews left Ethiopia; 14,211 arrived in Israel 11 babies were born on the plane!

Q: According to recent reports, there are currently thousands of Ethiopian Jews waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar to move to Israel. Please tell us what Israel is or isn’t doing to expedite their coming to Israel.

A: This is the Falasha Mura group not the Beta Yisrael (the Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel in the 1990s). This group converted to Judaism for various reasons, including access to schooling, land, etc. We agreed to a list of 24,000 who were Jewish and qualified to come to Israel. Approximately 6,000 have come so far at the rate of about 400 to 500 per month. The 18,000 still left will come. Of course it’s possible that, after they come, another 25,000 will show up, asking to come to Israel. Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has agreed, and I met recently with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He basically asked us to not pressure him and he assured us that slowly and quietly, they will come.

Q: Please describe the absorption of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society since their arrival in Israel.

A: I was nave at first. It is important to remember: After a four-hour flight, the Ethiopian Jews went from the Middle Ages to a dotcom society. Some people suggested that, since they were farmers in Ethiopia, they could work on farming in Israel. But they were used to farming with a mule, and our agriculture is high tech. Life in Israel was very different than in Ethiopia they had a big adjustment. Also, they experienced a breakdown of the family system. Society in Ethiopia was more patriarchal and hierarchical. In Israel, women are strong and the Ethiopian women said, “Me too!” This has led to many divorces since the husbands cannot adapt. Finally, absorption has been more difficult for the older generation. We are therefore concentrating on the younger generation, because they are our future I’m talking realistically.

Q: What are some of the qualities you’ve observed in the younger generation of Ethiopians?

A: Three things: 1. They are able and willing to learn. The younger generation is clever and intelligent and they appreciate the importance of education. This is the key to integration in Israel. 2. The women are getting their independence and are leading the way. When you educate a woman, you educate the whole family this has been a bonus for us. Over 50 percent of our students are women. 3. They have a strong identification with Israel 97 percent of Ethiopians serve in the army, which is higher than in the general population. They are good soldiers, and many men and women have become officers. The army has been a very important force in their integration into Israeli society.
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