Yerusalem is, as billed, the incredible story of the Ethiopian Jewry. Known to the Ethiopians as ‘Falasha’, a term meaning foreigner, which is now considered derogatory. At one point their struggles are summed up quite succinctly by an activist, “The Falasha problem is really two problems. They are Jewish among the Blacks, and then they are Black among the Jewish whites.”
This is an Israeli documentary, so it is very much from the perspective of looking from the inside of Israel out. And it very much comes to the subject with a viewpoint that all Jews should be united in Israel, and a condemnation of the racism that frequently was the barrier to keeping them out. As an outsider, a non-religious Scot, watching this documentary, this whole thing seems problematic front-to-back. The discrimination the Ethiopian Jews face trying to establish they are in fact Jews, that they are Jewish enough, and that their cultural Judaism is valid when being judged by the European descendant Jewry established in Israel, may seem to the filmmaker as an issue of unjust discrimination within Israeli society towards Black Jews, but to me sees like part and parcel of the wholesale problem of establishing a state based on racial and religious privilege. To me, having to authenticate your race, and have it challenged to the degree of its authenticity, according to a standard set by others, is going to be a fundamental problem when you base nationality upon race.
This is a fascinating documentary, and you don’t need to put a massive pin in your issues with the subject to enjoy the film. There is room to have your own reflections, while still being moved by the plight of the people involved.
I was not familiar with just how long a process it was to patriate the Ethiopian Jews. The pace of the documentary feels quite fast, and when it started, I thought, “Well, we’re going along at a fair clip here”, not realising just how much story there was to fit in.
The story starts as far back as 1950, when Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion refused to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. But by the time the 1970s roll around, there was increased activism among the Jewish diaspora, including the Ethiopian Jewish diaspora. Campaigns against antisemitism run alongside attempts to evacuate victims and political prisoners to the safety of Israel.
But Ethiopia has its own reasons for not wanting to see the Jews go. First, under Haile Selassie, a well-respected leader, he nonetheless had to hold together a nation of dozens of ethnicities and languages. He wasn’t too keen on the example it would set if ethnic groups claimed their racial identity as their nationality rather than Ethiopian.
Then secondly under the Soviet-backed dictatorship of Mengistu, there wasn’t any wish to co-operate with the American ally of Israel. Added to that, the country under Mengistu’s tyranny was in abject chaos, with civil war, famine and genocide.
It became clear in Israel, that either the Ethiopian Jews were evacuated to Israel now, or very soon there would be none left to save. Evocative of the plight of the European Jewry in war-torn, Nazi-destroyed Europe, Mossad began a series of undercover missions to ferry the Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
The story of the their journey is extraordinary. One of suffering, endurance, resourcefulness, and hope. A really fascinating piece of history.