Jewish heroes abound today, but you rarely hear about them. Most toil in relative anonymity doing good works for Israel and the Jewish people. One of those little known heroes is a biologist who taught for many years at the University of California at Irvine. I met Howard Lenhoff when he was looking for a research assistant to help him write a book about the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. Lenhoff had met an inspiring young Ethiopian Jewish high school student named Rahamim Elazar in Israel in 1974 and became a determined advocate for these forgotten Jews for much of the last 40 years. As president of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) from 1978 to 1982, Lenhoff played a critical role in bringing the plight of the Ethiopian Jews to the attention of Americans, prodding the Israeli government to take more active measures to bring the Jews to Israel and initiating dramatic rescue operations that ultimately may have saved more than 1,000 lives.
At the time we worked together, Lenhoff did not finish the book and the portion I had written sat in a drawer for 17 years before I published From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics Behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. Now Lenhoff has told the story of his personal involvement and given readers an inside look at the workings of a grassroots activist and the organization he helped mold. With the help of Jerry Weaver, who was directly involved in organizing the U.S.-led rescue efforts in the Sudan, he also tells the remarkable story of Operation Moses and many of the other dramatic efforts undertaken by other Israeli and American heroes to bring the Ethiopian Jews to their homeland.
My book focuses primarily on politics and answering the question why it took so long to rescue the Ethiopian Jews. Lenhoff gives more of an eyewitness account of his involvement as well as that of other activists. He also knows better than anyone the history and politics of the 1970s and 1980s that influenced the decisions made here and in Israel. Ultimately, Lenhoff and I disagree primarily on the emphasis he gives to the AAEJ's role and what he views as Israel's initial reluctance to save the Ethiopians. I argue that Israel needed little prodding and that AAEJ's role was not as significant. Readers can make their own judgments from the documents we offer and other accounts.
Regardless of how much credit one is willing to assign, there is little doubt the AAEJ was the most vigorous advocate for the Ethiopian Jews and that Lenhoff was for years its guiding emotional and intellectual spirit. The affection he has for the people and his enduring concern for their well-being oozes from every page. At a time when so many young Jews are either apathetic or motivated primarily by career ambitions, Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes offers a compelling lesson on how one person can save lives and change the world.
Sources: Mitchell Bard is the AICE Executive Director