Remarks at the scholarship awards ceremony, Keren Hanan Aynor, January 2019.
Ethiopia – Four Chapters
I would like to congratulate Keren Hanan Aynor and the scholarship recipients. I will open with something that is a bit personal. My father was a tar worker. For fifty years, he tarred an infinite number of roofs. There’s no work that is harder. It’s excruciating. As a boy and a teenager, and even as a college student, I helped him. I pulled the buckets of tar up to the roof by a rope. While the two of us rested under the scaffoldings, he would repeat to me, “Life is like the stairwell of the building. Don’t start life from the basement. Go up to the top. There’s no elevator. You have to go up the stairs. The stairs are education. Learn. Don’t start life from the first-floor window. Not from the second floor either. Go up the levels of education as high as you can. The more you learn, the better your life will be. Live your life on a level where there is light and a view.” Today, as I stand here before you, scholarship awardees, I am honored to repeat his words. Go up the stairs. Start life from the highest window you can reach. The more you acquire knowledge and a profession, the lighter your life will be. Again, thank you to Keren Aynor for helping ascend these stairs.
I met Hanan Aynor at the same time that I met Ethiopia. I completed my studies at Tel Aviv University, and then at Hebrew University, and I traveled to University of London in order to continue my studies and write a doctorate about Ethiopia. Between 1970 – 1973, I spent a few periods in that country. Those were peak days in the relations between Israel and Ethiopia. About a hundred Israeli families were working there and advancing the country in a range of areas, from defense and army to medicine, from agriculture and infrastructures to industry and education. The magnanimous Ambassador Hanan Aynor, and his beautiful and intelligent wife Sarah, oversaw all of the activity. They were filled with a sense of mission. All of Ethiopia was infused with hope.
In two words, I can define Ethiopia of those days. The Ethiopia of Haile Selassie. Pride and hope.
The pride was visible on everyone’s faces. The country was poor. Addis Ababa was more a collection of straw and mud huts than of stone buildings. There were hotels for foreigners and palaces of the emperor and the nobility. Distant complexes for foreign embassies. There were no sidewalks and few paved streets. Even on them, there were more convoys of donkeys than cars. Green colored aluminum walls separated between the tourists and the sights of poverty. An abundance of beggars displayed their handicaps and diseases. Occasionally, especially if there was a diplomatic event, trucks would arrive with soldiers and collect these ill-fated people to throw them far away from Addis Ababa. Sometimes, the emperor would appear in a Rolls Royce or lavish Cadillac and throw coins to the masses. According to tradition, he was the 225th emperor in the Solomonic dynasty, the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of biblical times. But Ethiopia of those days seemed to be still stuck in biblical times. Hundreds of churches and masses of people clad in white, engrossed in prayers, overcome with fervent awe. Holidays and festivals were celebrated in Christian ceremonies filled with traditions from the Hebrew bible. Ethiopia had one newspaper, called Addis Time in Amharic or Ethiopian Herald in English. There were no political parties. Students from Haile Selassie University only allowed themselves to whisper in secret against the general backwardness. No one dared to say that the emperor was not God’s chosen one. But with the poverty and fear, there was a lot of pride too. Men, women and children walked with their heads held high. Confident in their place under the sun. Their eyes spoke two thousand years of history of independence. Sons of a country that was capable of defending itself against some of the strongest and most aggressive forces in history: imperial Islam and European imperialism. With the exception of two short episodes, imperial Ethiopia, throughout the generations, only had victories. For me personally, as a college student, this pride integrated well with the doctorate that I wrote. I learned about Ras Alula, the son of farmers who, for twenty years, while the rest of Africa was being conquered and crushed by Europeans, beat them again and again. From the battle of Dogali to the battle of Adwa. March 1 is Adwa Day. The national holiday was a day of victory. Who celebrated victories in Africa or Asia of those times? Only the Ethiopians. On Adwa Day, the masses drank, ate, and listened to speeches by nobles and priests about victorious Ethiopia. From Addis Ababa, I traveled northward to Tigray and Eretria to learn more about Ras Alula. I saw regions stricken by draught and masses of people suffering from hunger, but pride was everywhere.
There was also hope. The general feeling was that the future is near, and it will be good. The emperor was already elderly and feeble. He also did something important – he built a class of intellectuals, some in uniform and some bureaucrats. In 1973, there were about ten thousand university graduates in Ethiopia. They were meant to lead it forward. Addis Ababa was already the capital of all of Africa. The Organisation of African Unity was situated in Africa Hall palace. Hundreds of representatives of the newly-awakened continent, members of liberation movements and revolutionaries, were role models and an inspiration for the younger generation of Ethiopians, as well as for hundreds of young adults from the USA and western Europe. And Israelis too. Israelis were everywhere, as I mentioned. Effective, noisy, innovative. The Ethiopians trusted them more than others. Israelis were invited to help in the most important and sensitive places. After the victory of the Six Day War in 1967, the romantic view that the Children of Israel, descendants of King Solomon, could do anything. Many of the top Israeli brass came and went – Rabin, Peres, Chaim Bar Lev, everyone. Hundreds of articles in the Ethiopian Herald and Addis Time praised Israel as if it were a superpower. Books about Exodus, about Our Man in Damascus – Eli Cohen, about the victory of the Six Day War, were sold at stalls. Ethiopia was Israel’s ally against the Arab and Muslim world. On the Ethiopian side, it was all a bit romantic and biblical. On the Israeli side, it was more calculated, strategic.
On one of my trips up north, I reached the Jewish villages next to Gondar, back in 1970. I remember a hut with a Star of David on it. A young woman sat with a baby in her arms and sold small black clay figurines of the lion of Judah. A gaunt young man arrived at the hotel in Gondar and announced that he was on his way to Israel. At that time, the issue of the Jews of Ethiopia – the term “Falash Mura” was common then – was barely on the Israeli agenda. The Chief Rabbinate had not yet recognized their Judaism. Haile Selassie actually had recognized their Judaism but was not willing to speak about their right to leave his country. He was unequivocal – the Falash Mura are part of Ethiopia, a land of many nations and religions. The Israeli government did not nudge the emperor much on this issue. Ambassador Aynor did everything in his power. The emperor would refer him to ministers and honorable figures of Jewish origin, such as Tadsa Yakub, and they would cool him down. Members of the sect, they said, would advance and be Ethiopians like them, half-Christians. The embassy and the Jewish Agency helped with Hebrew education, but not directly. I later found an angry letter from Hanan Aynor to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem: “We are arousing the hopes of the youth of the sect, but in practice, we cannot and are not trying to bring the to Israel. We are planting false seeds of hope.”
Among all of this, the entire Israeli-Ethiopian relationship began to decline. The Arab and Muslim voices became louder in the Organization of African Unity. They threatened to move the center of the organization out of Addis Ababa unless Ethiopia severed its connections with Israel. The Arabs, led by the king of Saudi Arabia, promised money. Khadafi of Libya threatened the emperor vigorously. Sadat of Egypt put pressure on him. The day after the Yom Kippur War ended, Haile Selassie betrayed Israel, severed the ties and expelled the dozens of Israeli experts.
By doing so, the emperor quickened his own downfall. His betrayal of Israel worsened the crisis among the Christian elite. They were already confused. The top military brass did not know what was going on in the units of the battalions. I was once at a meeting of the Israeli advisors with the battalions of the army. They invited me to lecture and I stayed to listen. There were 36 battalions in the army’s four divisions. In each one of them, there was an Israeli who was actively involved. Young officers who lived with their Ethiopian colleagues in the field. With the first lieutenants and captains, not with the colonels. At the meeting, each one reported about his battalion. How they performed the exercises, how they complained about the corrupt officials. The Israelis knew everything. They also looked out for everything – that the supply arrived, that there was clean drinking water. After they were thrown out at the end of October 1973, there was no one looking out for the military’s companies on the ground. There was no one to report to the top brass of the government about what was happening in the combat units either. The entire government paid for that, very quickly. The revolution that erupted was cruel. The entire old leadership was murdered by the commanders of those companies. In the end, the emperor himself was also murdered and buried in secret, in contempt.
Ethiopia of the past disappeared, never to return. Major Mengistu Haile Mariam led a Stalinist regime, tried to uproot Ethiopia’s religious-spiritual past and rebuild it based on rigid socialism imported from the Soviet Union and later even from North Korea. The second chapter began. I returned and entered Ethiopia during his days, between 1974-1991. It was like a different country. The biblical atmosphere disappeared, and with it, the pride and the hope. People walked around fear-stricken. Afraid to even whisper in cafes. There was terror and civil wars. Poverty became much more severe. The comfort that had been in the sulka prayers, the hope that after the emperor, there would be democracy and advancement – were no more. It was a dark chapter in the country’s history.
Mengistu and his followers no longer attributed any sense of romance to Israel. At first, they invited the Israelis again because they wanted their help. Later, they relied on the Soviets and discontinued all contact. I got lucky. I was accepted as a historian and could see the country. I was also able to see how the regime was exacerbating the helplessness and trying to conceal the hunger and the death.
In the meantime, things changed in Israel as well. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recognized the Judaism of Beta Israel, and Shlomo Hillel started to work to recognize their rights under the Law of Return. Israel was the one now going back to its ancient biblical roots. The strategic value of Ethiopia had declined – Israel began to negotiate peace with Egypt. Ethiopian Jews rose to the top of the Israeli agenda. “bring me the Jews of Ethiopia,” Menachem Begin ordered the head of the Israeli Mossad. In conjunction with the Jews of the United States and the rest of the world, and thanks to the pioneering spirit of the members of the Jewish sect in Ethiopia themselves, the immigration operations began. Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. Much has already been written about these, and there is still much to write. One of the oldest communities of Israel returned to live in its land.
In 1991, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime was also overthrown, and the third chapter began. The revolutionaries came from Tigray, from the region of Ras Alula, and their leaders accepted me appreciatively. I began to visit again almost every year. I saw the third chapter of Ethiopia in our times. Compared to the two chapters before it, it was an improvement. The country was rebuilt as a federation based on ethnic logic. It opened up to its inner diversity and to the world at large. To Muslims as well, who were about half of the country. The civil wars died down; the economy began to stabilize. It even started to grow, with all of the growth pains that come with accelerated growth. The dam on the Nile River is being gradually built, and it will promise electricity for continued development. There were, and remain, challenges and problems. The government, relying on the hegemony of an armed minority group, aroused opposition and did not hesitate to use force. In 2012, the strong leader Meles Zenawi died. I came and went; I saw the good and the less-good. The country changed a lot. On the one hand, there was a wave of development. Addis Ababa is no longer the sleepy city with sand streets and convoys of donkeys like in the emperor’s days. Nor is it a sad city under lockdown like in the days of Mengistu. Today, the city is one big construction site, a noisy traffic jam. Millions of children walk to school every morning. They are ascending, and will ascend, the stairs of education. Dozens of newspapers, organizations, and political movements are making noise in all directions. All of this is in addition to a population explosion, the deepening of social gaps, new problems, great expectations, frustration and bitterness. Ethiopia is moving forward. Sometimes slowly, and sometimes at exaggerated speed.
In April 2018, a fourth chapter began. It’s just starting. The charismatic prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, represents a young, educated generation. He is a military man, an academic, with both Oromo and Amhara ethnicity, and he speaks Tigrinya as well. He has both Islamic and Christian backgrounds. Abiy is trying, and even succeeding, to make peace in the region, and peace at home, and he has a sense of humor too. How this chapter of Ethiopia’s history will develop – we will wait and see.
We are at Yad Ben-Zvi, the residence of Israel’s second president. In June 1942, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi was one of the founders of the “Committee to Bring the Falash Mura, the Dispersed of Israel, Back Home.” As president of Israel between 1952-1963, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi did his utmost to recognize the Judaism of the sect and bring them to Israel. His vision was realized and we have been privileged to see it. A young, intelligent generation represents the beauty of the Beta Israel community. Pride and hope. May you all be successful!