I attended a lecture on Monday by Moti Toledo, who participated in Operation Solomon, the 36-hour airlift of about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel while Ethiopia was in the throes of revolution.
Religious people can be excused for believing that miracles occurred during the operation. An El Al 747 with all its seats removed set the world record for number of people on a commercial aircraft, carrying 1088 passengers (two or three of them were babies born on the flight to Israel). According to the secular Toledo, the runway at that time was not considered long enough for even a normally-loaded 747, and the plane struggled to get airborne before it ran out of runway. An unexpected gust of wind came along from precisely the right direction, just in time. Make of this what you will.
This was after several covert operations had brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, including the fascinating “Operation Brothers,” a Mossad-operated diving resort in Sudan (a country as hostile to Israel as any you can think of) which operated during 1981-5, and succeeded in rescuing some 12,000 Jews.
The efforts to get the Ethiopian Jews to Israel began after then Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote a letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Supposedly, Begin then called the head of the Mossad, and told him “Bring me my brothers, the Jews of Ethiopia.”
Toledo said that the story of the Ethiopian Jews illustrates the connection between the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Israel is and will always be a place of refuge and a protector of Jews everywhere. I can’t think of another country that has this kind of relationship with its people (and I am using “people” in its tribal sense). Perhaps if there will be an independent Kurdistan, there could be one more.
He also mentioned that when he gave a presentation in Europe, a non-Jewish person said to him that they too wished they had a place of refuge, the way Jews did. It reminded me of what an African-American Muslim said to my wife and me when we were about to make aliyah in 1979: “I wish we knew where our home was.”
Israel today is experiencing what Ofir Haivry called a “demographic miracle.” Everyone knows that when economic well-being and educational level increase, fertility goes down. This is true in Europe, North America, East and Southwest Asia, and the Middle East, including Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. But not among Jewish Israelis, where each woman has an average of 3.1 children (and this number is rising, despite Israel’s economic success). Haivry notes that this is not mostly because of a high birthrate among Haredim, but because the majority of secular and non-Haredi observant Jews are having more children. I can attest to this anecdotally – the streets and parks here are full of Jewish children and pregnant women.
Haivry attributes this to the strong family orientation of Jewish Israelis. He writes,
Throughout Israeli society, the educational and moral welfare of children as well as the continuity of the family remains at the center of parents’ (and grandparents’) lives, not only emotionally but as a matter of almost day-to-day practice.
But this is only part of it – and I think it is a small part, because close family ties characterize many countries in which there is nevertheless an inverse correlation between development and birthrate. He continues – and here I think he hits the nail on its head:
This peculiarly strong culture draws sustenance from and in turn informs the equally strong sense of national solidarity. Thanks to that strongly shared national identity, Israeli Jews are unusually willing to make personal sacrifices when it comes to welcoming new Jewish immigrants into the state and into their homes—and also when it comes to stoically enduring protracted periods of violence and bloodshed perpetrated by intractable enemies. As traditional communities of origin have receded in importance elsewhere in the world, the shared sense of an Israeli nation-family underlies the habitual instinct of most Israeli Jews to regard other Jews, and especially those in Israel itself, primarily as family members rather than merely as fellow citizens.
In a word, the secret is Zionism.
This is precisely why Menachem Begin asked the Mossad to bring him his Ethiopian brothers. This is why, when my own son told me that his wife was going to have a fourth child, he said – only half-jokingly – “I did it for the demographic struggle of the Jewish people.”
Having children is a joy, especially when one gets older. But in the beginning it means that parents have to sacrifice some of their own well-being for the sake of the children. There are adventures that they will not have, and pleasures that they will have to forgo. In highly self-centered societies, people often prefer not to make such sacrifices. They choose travel, extended education or careers over children. If they do have children, they have them later in life, so they have fewer of them.
This is why the highly developed native cultures of Europe, for example, are phasing themselves out of history with fertility rates far below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. And worries about their shrinking work force which must support an increasingly aged population have led them to welcome the immigration that will ultimately put an end to those cultures.
And this is why liberal Jews will soon be disappearing as a distinct group in American society: their affluence together with a lack of national feeling – which is also the reason they are attracted to anti-Israel politics – leads them to put their personal gratification before any Jewish consciousness that they may have. They have fewer children, and don’t see a downside to intermarriage.
This also applies to the bitter anti-Zionist Left in Israel, the ones that advise their (few) children to refuse to be serve in the IDF. But for this very reason – they too will be gone soon – I don’t see them as a major threat to Israel’s national consciousness.
Someone said to me at Toledo’s lecture that while the immigration of the Ethiopians was a big success, their absorption has been less so. I disagree. We are just beginning to see the first generation of Ethiopian Jews born in Israel, and they are Israeli in every way. The usual problems of immigrants – prejudice, crime, poverty – are fading away, and in another generation or two will be gone. Jews from Ethiopia are finding their places in our society, including having plenty of children of their own.
Today Israel is militarily the most powerful nation in the region – we’ve just demonstrated that to the Iranian regime – and an economic powerhouse, but we are also vulnerable due to our small size. Begin realized that we need more than military strength to survive – we need to care about each other and our nation.
And despite the sometimes deafening disagreements, we do.