Written by The Columbus Jewish Foundation and Originally Published on their website in The Art of Giving section
In the fall of 1984, Jerry Weaver was serving as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum. A surprise visit from an American representative started in motion an effort which would lead to one of the most dramatic chapters in modern Israeli history. When the dust settled, Jerry “Indiana” Weaver would forever be linked to the lives of thousands of Ethiopian refugees as he was instrumental in forming the secret plan to shepherd these desperate Ethiopian Jewish refugees from Sudan to Israel. The plan would later be revealed to the world as Operation Moses.
Mr. Weaver was the special guest at the Columbus Jewish Foundation’s December Board of Trustees meeting. After concluding the business portion of the meeting, Foundation Board member and Overseas Needs Committee member Irving Baker introduced Mr. Weaver as “a genuine hero of the Jewish people.” Mr. Weaver shared his thoughts and unique perspectives regarding the situation of Ethiopian Jews in 1984 and the events that led to the Operation Moses campaign.
Mr. Weaver explained his involvement in the Operation Moses effort as “a strange chapter in an equally strange book.” Commenting on the “Politics of Rescue”, Mr. Weaver acknowledged that while much has been written about the operations on the ground, he found there was a lack of information regarding the event itself and the efforts that led to the Operation.
“In 1982, the U.S. State Department knew about the plight of the Ethiopian refugees. Why was nothing done?” Weaver noted that this was a question he struggled with to this day. He continued, “The Sudanese government wanted them out of the country and were willing to help. Where was the United States and equally perplexing, where was Israel.” It was only after a visit from a representative from the American Association of Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) to Weaver’s supervisor in Khartoum, that a concerted effort was put into place. “It was Henry Rosenberg’s visit to our office that served as the flare that illuminated the landscape. Within two months, the ball was rolling and I was instructed to formulate a plan for moving the refugees to Israel.”
Mr. Weaver credits the success of the Operation Moses effort for helping to “eliminate the stain of the S.S. St. Louis tragedy in 1939.
On May 13 1939 the SS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg for Havana. On board were 937 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany after the horror of Kristallnacht, the pogrom of shop-burning and mass arrests the previous November. Each passenger carried a valid visa for temporary entry into Cuba. It was one of the last ships to leave Nazi Germany before Europe was engulfed in war.
As the boat approached Havana, however the Cuban government declared the visas invalid and refused entry to the passengers. Subsequent negotiations with the Cuban government to permit the landing ended in failure. Similar attempts to seek entry to the United States also brought no respite. The United States, as the St. Louis steamed along its southern coast, refused to let the ship dock. After waiting 12 days in the port of Havana and off the Miami coast, the boat was forced to return to Europe. After four weeks at sea, many of the former St. Louis passengers found themselves under Nazi rule and did not survive the Holocaust.
In 1994, Mr. Weaver was invited to Israel for the 10th anniversary of the Operation Moses effort. He was most gratified by the way the immigrants looked and reiterated those observations in a new book by Howard Lenhoff entitled Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: “As a former refugee coordinator in the Sudan, I had seen literally thousands of dead. Thus my most moving impressions were how healthy the Ethiopian immigrants looked. . . .I had seen very few babies enter the airplanes in Operation Moses; most had died of disease and dehydration. Here, those refugees who had survived had prospered in their new homeland. While some, especially the elderly, were having difficulties integrating into a modern, technological society, it was obvious that their children and grandchildren were in a better place, living free in Israel.”
After his presentations, Mr. Weaver entertained questions from the Board. Irving Baker, on behalf of the Foundation, presented Mr. Weaver with a mounted Mezuzah which included the following inscription on the base: “Presented to Jerry L. Weaver, In appreciation of your legacy of hope and unprecedented efforts on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry. December 2005/Kislev 5766”
The recipient of the 1985 State Department’s “Superior Honor Award” for his work with Operation Moses, Mr. Weaver holds a Masters in Political Science form Ohio University and earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. With over 40 publications to his credit, Mr. Weaver has been published in the Journal of Peace Research, Journal of Modern African Studies, and Social Science Quarterly just to name a few. He is a former Professor at California State University at Long Beach and UCLA. He currently lives on his farm in Licking County.
Speaking on the importance of Mr. Weaver’s visit, foundation President Sandy Solomon noted that “while time and agenda may not permit special guests at every Board of Trustees meeting, we are hoping to welcome guests from different disciplines to future meetings. We want our Board members to view their tenure as meaningful. This type of visit builds awareness of the importance of our work.”