Freeing the Jews of Ethiopia, with Castro’s Help: The forgotten story of US Rep. Mickey Leland

A short while ago, George Thomas “Mickey” Leland was supposed to turn 77. His life was cut short many decades ago, when he died died at the age of 45, in a plane crash in Ethiopia, on August 7, 1989. Leland, who had been a six-term congressmen, spent a great deal of his energy on Ethiopia in the last years of his life. He also played a crucial role in the history of the Ethiopian Jews. Indeed, Mickey Leland was part of the story of bringing them to Israel.

Leland is well known for his fight against poverty and many of his social and philanthropic projects. After his death, an obituary published in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv lauded the Democrat congressman as somebody who had helped Israel a lot in various matters. Then-president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, praised Leland, saying, “His heartfelt feelings have helped millions of people from Houston to Addis Ababa.” And yet, his role in the history of the Ethiopian Jews is an almost lost history, as the people who know about his work can be counted on one hand. And virtually no documents exist for this story. Trying to uncover it leads one to the Anti-Defamation League and to Fidel Castro.

The story of the Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, is intrinsically linked to American Jewish organizations. Without their interest and pressure on Israel, the immigration of Ethiopian Jews would have probably played out very differently. Various American Jewish organizations had managed to get their feet on the ground and establish some connections with the Ethiopian government in the later years of Haile Selassie’s reign (1930-1974). Jewish organizations, among them the ADL, managed to promote the issue of Ethiopian aliyah and their representatives were even able to visit Jewish villages in various regions of Ethiopia. The aliyah of the Beta Israel began under Menachem Begin, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Operation Brothers and other smaller operations, the Mossad, in collaboration with local Ethiopian Jewish community leaders, managed to get Jews out through Sudan, and from there to Israel. Often this involved covert measures (one of those stories was recently told in a Netflix miniseries).

The overthrow of Emperor Haile Selaisse in 1974 markedly changed the situation, and made access to Ethiopia and the government extremely difficult. In the mid-1980s, the new ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam of the Communist Derg, put a stop to all these emigration activities. Who would now possibly open new ways to the Ethiopian, revolutionary government? The ADL sought ways to connect with Mengistu and to persuade him to let the Jews of Ethiopia leave, and immigrate to Israel. And this is where the story connects to Mickey Leland, a Black and Christian politician from Texas.

As Abe Foxman, former CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told me, they were in dire need of creative solutions. And then Leland’s name came up. Leland had close ties with Fidel Castro, who, in turn, had good relations with Mengistu. According to Foxman, Leland’s immediate reaction when approached was: “They are black and Jewish, I cannot lose with that. How can I help?” And even if this does not sound too emphatic, Yoram Ettinger, former consul of Israel in Texas who knew Leland beginning in the mid-1980s, remembers that he deeply cared for Jewish issues and for Ethiopia. In the end, Leland really went out of his way, when it came to the Ethiopian Jews.

Leland talked to Castro, who made sure to connect him with Mengistu. Some time later, Abe Foxman and Mickey Leland found themselves on a flight to Ethiopia with a stopover in London. But by the time they arrived in London, Mengistu had changed his mind and would not approve their entry visa to Ethiopia. The pair decided to travel to Israel from London instead, to meet with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. They brought Begin up to speed, and that seemed to be it for the moment. Mengistu refused to allow the remaining Jews to leave Ethiopia.

Yet, not long after, an opening occurred. Mengistu’s rule was beginning to tremble and that worked to the benefit of the Ethiopian aliyah initiative. Mengistu began to rethink his relationship with the West. The person who spearheaded the overthrow of Haile Selassie and was even rumored to have killed the emperor himself now thought about his own personal future. Mengistu saw that he might need Western assistance and a “golden parachute” when his time came – and it seemed to be coming.

So once more, Mickey Leland stepped up. In March 1989, they met in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa; the entry visa was no longer an issue. Mengistu informed Leland that he approved the Ethiopian Jews’ departure to join their relatives in Israel. Mengistu’s motives were clear. He hoped that this gesture would help both his government and himself by improving relations with the United States.

In an interview Leland gave after the meeting, he relayed that Mengistu had told him that he was committed to “family reunification.” Leland in turn, apparently not wanting to upset Mengistu, did not ask how many people would be approved to leave Ethiopia for Israel. Rather, he flew to Tel Aviv and briefed the Israeli government.

Mickey Leland died just a few months later in a plane crash in Ethiopia. It is tragic that his engagement in this part of the world took the very energetic and sympathetic young Black politician and community leader from us. He was much needed in the decades after his death.

Leland was not only interested in the Jews of Ethiopia, of course. He was active in a series of projects and initiatives in the country. And his activities on behalf of the Ethiopian Jews are joined by those of a whole list of people, institutions, and governments. In Addis Ababa, a street and a neighborhood are named after him.

The aliyah of Ethiopian Jews continued and in some form still continues today. It is important that Mickey Leland be remembered for his part and his extraordinary willingness to be part of the global Jewish history of the 20th century. One can only hope that he will get the recognition in both Israel and the United States for this role that he so deserves.

About the Author
Roni Fantanesh Malkai is a community advocate and activist based in Northern Israel.