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Book Review: Howard Lenhoff, Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes. 

May 20, 2008

Reviewed for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

This book by one of the leader of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) provides an important perspective on the political maneuverings that culminated in the dramatic airlift in 1991 of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in a single day. It also provides and interesting look at the world of American Jewish philanthropic organizations and their relationship to Israel and Israeli politics and policy.

The book is not – as the author makes clear from the outset – a comprehensive account of the controversial origins and history of the Ethiopian Jews, their sufferings in the turmoil of post‑World War II Ethiopia, and the series of dramatic rescues that brought virtually the entire community to Israel in the 1980s and 90s. Readers interested in broad accounts should look to a number of other books: Steve Kaplan’s The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia and David Kessler’s The Falashas for the long and controversial history; Stephen Spector’s Operation Solomon and Mitchell Bard’s From Tragedy to Triumph for the broader story of the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews.

Instead, Lenhoff provides a consummate insiders account of the AAEJ’s successful and sometimes controversial campaign for the return of the Falasha to Israel under the law of Aliyah. Lenhoff’s memoir powerfully conveys the passion for justice that drove him and other members of the organization to tirelessly do the mundane work of grassroots organizing, and shows how the organization acted as a gadfly to reluctant Israeli and American policy makers, goading them to notice and ultimately take action to rescue the long‑suffering Black Jews of Ethiopia. As such, the book is an inspiring and at times even gripping account of the power of grassroots activism.

But the strength of a memoir that trades on insider’s knowledge can often place limits on its analytical reach, and that is the case here. The book allows us to understand Lenhoff and the AAEJ, but is much less successful in its representation of the motives of other key players in the story. Lenhoff seems quite fair even when he is highly critical of other individuals and organizations. But based on this book alone, the reader is not given the means of judging Lenhoff’s claims about the role of the AAEJ. Similarly, at some points in the book, Lenhoff suggests that the AAEJ’s story has some broad lessons for understanding the nature and function of grassroots activism. But, immersed in the particularities of his own experience with the AAEJ, Lenhoff never identifies exactly what those lessons might be.

In short, this book provides a valuable but incomplete and very particular perspective on a much bigger story.

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