In July 1948, an old Liberty ship, the SS Marine Flasher, arrived in New York City from Bremen, Germany with a shipload of Jewish Holocaust survivors. I was among the hundreds of passengers lining up to pass the immigration officers who guarded the entrance to the “Promised Land” – America.
Finally, my turn came. I approached an immigration officer and handed him my passport with an entry visa stamped in it.
Really, my “passport” was just a little booklet. It resembled a real passport, but it was also significantly different. On the front page, it stated in bold letters that it was “A Passport in Lieu of a Passport”. In short, it was a “stateless” passport which declared that the owner was a Displaced Person – a homeless person without a country.
The Immigration Officer looked at the document and stamped it, confirming that I was officially “admitted.” I was happy; I had finally arrived at a place that would, I hoped, someday become my home. I was anxious to leave and meet my U.S. hosts.
But, as I extended my hand to receive my passport, the official told me that my visa was valid for only three months.
“I am glad that you informed me,” I said. “I’ll have it extended immediately.”
The next question he asked led to my arrest. My dream of being admitted to the country was shattered. In spite of having worked for the United Nations, I was still a “green horn” – a naïve and trusting young man.
“Mr. Schoenfeld,” said the official, “if the United States were to offer you the right to stay permanently in this country, would you accept such an offer?”
Well, of course I would. I had been lucky enough to earn a scholarship to study at Washington University and thus had an opportunity to come on a temporary visa. It would have taken me years to receive the immigration visa that would allow me to stay for good.
I could not imagine that in a country I believed to be fair, just and moral that officials would be so underhanded as to entrap unsuspecting immigrants and subject them to possible deportation. So I took the question on its face value, as an honest inquiry.
What could I say but the truth? I revealed my love for this country.
“It would be a great honor,” I responded.
Immediately, the official scratched and defaced the stamp that granted me admission to the country. Obviously, I was not deported and did eventually attain citizenship here, but for the moment, I would be interned in Ellis Island until my case could be examined in a Federal Court.
A Chance Meeting
Under guard, I was led to a ferry that connected Manhattan and my new destination. As I walked, two images appeared on the horizon:
First, I saw Bedloe’s Island (now called Liberty Island), with the Statue of Liberty proclaiming to the world the words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired and poor, yearning to be free.”
Second, I saw Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants were being detained and examined before they were permitted to set foot in the U.S.
I, like millions before me, was brought to an office where I was booked and questioned. They told me that, within a few days, I would appear before a panel of three judges who would determine my case.
Finally and unexpectedly, the examining official asked if I’d like to eat in the main or kosher dining room.
Given this choice, I elected to eat in the kosher kitchen. Luckily, I entered the dining room just before it was closing and was provided with a very tasty meal of chicken paprika (csirke paprikas), the same meal that my mother served us for lunch every Friday. As I enjoyed my food, I looked around the empty room; besides me, there was a young black man with a kippah on his head.
I had seen and talked with a few black soldiers during my two-year stay in Germany, but I had never seen black Jews. My curiosity was aroused.
As it turns out, the young man was a member of a group of Ethiopian Jews that called themselves “Beta Israel” (the House of Israel). They were an ancient Jewish group that, according to legend, are descendants of Shebah, whose queen married Solomon.
As the story goes, the son that resulted from that marriage brought Judaism to the people of Northeast Africa. They, like their European Jewish counterparts, endured centuries of poverty, discrimination, and persecution.
The Christians and the Muslims had named them the “Falasha” – the landless, the wanderers.
Opening Our Eyes
For two millennia, we prayed every morning, “Bring us home in peace from the four corners of the world and make us walk upright to our land.” We also asked of the Almighty to “…gather our scattered people exiled among other people.”
And G-d listened. The few who survived the Holocaust were able to return to an ancient homeland that, by the Law of Return, assured a home and refuge.
Is that law not inclusive? Does it not provide for all Jews, including those with roots different from the European and Near-Eastern to which we are accustomed?
The Beta Israel had to linger in a land where they were not wanted even after the formation of a Jewish State. For more than 25 years, they continued to suffer while scholars argued about the legitimacy of their Judaism. It took that long for the rabbis to declare that the members of Beta Israel are Jews because they are a remnant of the tribe of.
I say that they are Jews not because in some magical way they are proclaimed to be Danites. They are Jews because they believe in the principles of Judaism, its moral teachings and their historical relationship.
And – most importantly – they are Jews because they have and continue to define themselves as Jews. Yes, they are different from European Jews, but they are Jews.
There are many other people today who not only claim to be Jews, but even have genetic substantiation for their claims. For instance, there is the Shinlung, a group living between India and Myanmar that identify themselves as Jews and who claim to be members of the of the tribe of Menashe, one of the tribes taken captive by the Assyrians after they destroyed Israel in 720 BCE.
Then, there are the Jews of Cochin, the Bene Ephraim, the Bene Israel, the Jews of Teglu, the Jews of Samarkand, the Jews of Bukhara and the Mountain Jews of Baku. There remain many tribal Jews who live in Africa, especially the Ahyudaya in Uganda. They all are members of our scattered people.
It’s not my intent to argue whether or not all of these groups have a right of re-settlement in Israel, but I do propose that the global Jewish community (and the Israeli rabbinate specifically) must modify the present narrow definition of who is a Jew and adopt a more inclusive policy.
The new definition of a Jew would be all-encompassing and accept the scattered remnants of our ancient tribes. It would also ideally accept Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.
The strict matrilineal view governing Jewish descent was, I believe, a successful defense mechanism against assimilation during ghetto and similarly marginalized existence. However, this view has also brought forth a commitment to exclusivity and fostered a contradiction between the reality of heterogeneity among Jews and the Diaspora-created illusion of Jewish homogeneity.
No social institution that rejects the necessity of change, that stands against the forces and conditions that demand change, can survive. Judaism has redefined itself a number of times and must do so once again.
BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT Contributor
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.