February 12, 2008
Early in this book Howard Lenhoff interrupts his narrative with a discussion of what constitutes history. It is a particularly apt discussion because, as is said of journalists, in this book Howard Lenhoff is writing a first draft of history. As he also makes clear, this is not the story of how the Jewish population of Ethiopia, the Falasha, was rescued, although it is an important part of that story. The struggle to accomplish this rescue, carried out over decades through the work of many individuals in many places, was as complex an effort as any battle, military campaign, or war - so it is perhaps appropriate that as I read Howard's account I remembered the words of the Duke of Wellington,
"The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which they occurred, which makes all the difference...But if a true history is written, what will become of the reputation of half of those who have acquired reputations, and who deserve it for their gallantry, but who, if their mistakes and casual misconduct were made public would not be so well thought of?"
It is to the author's credit that he states simply he is telling the story of "how grassroots activism led to the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews," in the form of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ), which he helped found in 1974. This book delivers that story while also citing many other works that address other aspects and elements of the story as seen and experienced by others - from individuals to government agencies.
As I read the book I had the feeling that I was actually sitting at a kitchen table as Howard Lenhoff - aided by former U.S. Refugee Coordinator officer Jerry Weaver - recounted the tale, complete with digressions, interruptions, some meandering, but always with a determination that the whole truth be told. In a similar interest of full disclosure, I should point out that during my own U.S. Foreign Service career I served as the Embassy Refugee Officer in Kinshasa dealing with the refugees in then-Zaire (again the Congo today) as they sought to escape an ongoing civil war in neighboring Angola. I was also familiar with Ambassadors Lyman and Horan, actually serving as one of the latter's intelligence briefers during his time as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs before his posting as Ambassador to Cameroon, and these contacts left me with very positive assessments of both. I am also happy to say that nothing in Howard Lenhoff's account of the role played by these two men in this effort on behalf of the Falashas has caused me to alter those opinions.
The author suggests that the efforts of the AAEJ as told in this book could present the reader with a model for activism. However, while it captures the required enthusiasm and persistence demonstrated by Howard Lenhoff and his many collaborators, it is not as written a "how-to" book. The discerning reader may even find in its pages a revelation that may have escaped several of our current presidential candidates - the often-hard reality that the politicians, officials, and bureaucrats in government are locked in a symbiotic relationship with the activists, agitators, and general political troublemakers outside of government. The former frequently need the latter to keep them focused on issues that really are of importance to society at large - and the latter need the former because for all of their energy and commitment, they lack both the legislative authority to make new laws and the executive power to make the government act.
This book also makes clear the importance of one other essential ingredient for making anything happen in the world at large - money. Ultimately, individuals, corporations, governments, and all organizations have one sure way of identifying and demonstrating what is important to them and that is to spend money to obtain it or to accomplish it. All of the good intentions and wishes in the world were not enough to help rescue Ethiopia's Jews until the AEJJ and people like Howard Lenhoff, Jerry Weaver, and others demonstrated that it was important enough to them to spend money on actually achieving that goal.
As Howard Lenhoff noted early in this work, "Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes" is not the story of the rescue of the Falasha. Nevertheless, the story told here is an important contribution to the telling of that story. Anyone wanting to know the whole story of that rescue, whether scholar or general reader, will need to read this book along with the many other works generously cited in its pages in order to come close to knowing this story.