Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A covert Israeli-U.S. operation airlifted Ethiopian Jews from famine-ridden and war-torn Ethiopia to Israel after first moving them to Sudan, a nation officially still at war with Israel.

Summary of Event

There is no historical consensus about the origins of the Jewish population of Ethiopia. What is evident is that their practice of Judaism is pre-Talmudic and predates the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 586 b.c.e. Until modern times, other Jewish communities were unaware of their existence. Other Ethiopians called them Falasha (strangers). Chief rabbis began a debate in the mid-nineteenth century about whether or not they should be called real Jews. In 1908, chief rabbis from forty-five nations termed the estimated 200,000 Falasha as authentic Jews in spite of their African ethnicity. They were named Beta Israel (House of Israel), yet they remained far from the consciousness of most Jews. Operation Moses Jews;Ethiopian evacuation Refugees;Ethiopian Jews [kw]Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel (Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985) [kw]Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Evacuation of (Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985) [kw]Jews to Israel, Evacuation of Ethiopian (Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985) [kw]Israel, Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to (Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985) Operation Moses Jews;Ethiopian evacuation Refugees;Ethiopian Jews [g]Africa;Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985: Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel[05590] [g]Ethiopia;Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985: Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel[05590] [g]Sudan;Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985: Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel[05590] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985: Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel[05590] [c]Human rights;Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985: Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel[05590] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 21, 1984-Jan. 5, 1985: Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel[05590] Begin, Menachem Mengistu Haile Mariam Rabin, Yitzhak Yosef, Ovadia

It was not until 1975 that the Israeli Interministerial Commission officially recognized Beta Israel as Jews, thus allowing them to be given full citizenship rights immediately after setting foot on Israeli soil and to be granted financial assistance for resettlement under the Law of Return. By that time, the number of Ethiopian Jews had dwindled to 28,000, most of whom lived in Gonder Province. However, no effort was made to bring these Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Conditions for the Ethiopian Jews dramatically worsened after 1974, when the traditionalist regime of Emperor Haile Selassie I was overthrown by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu established a Marxist dictatorship hostile to the Falasha. Reacting to their plight, in May of 1977, Menachem Begin, the new prime minister of Israel, initiated the process of return by unloading air cargo shipments of modern weapons for Mengistu and reloading the jets with Ethiopian Jews. However, only a group of sixty were loaded in the initial exchange, and another sixty were taken to Israel in December. The exchange came to a sudden halt in February, 1978, as pressure was exerted on Mengistu by Arab nations after Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan revealed details of the exchange. It is not clear whether Dayan’s revelation was purposeful, but it is evident that Begin’s enthusiasm was not shared by other cabinet members.

In spite of persecution and the killing of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, only thirty-two Jews were rescued in 1979. Falasha escaped by the dozens to the Sudan, where Israeli intelligence agents placed them in safe houses on the outskirts of Khartoum. They were then transported to Khartoum Airport, where they were secreted onto Olympic Airlines flights and flown to Greece, where they disembarked for flights to Israel.

The border crossing was not encouraged by Israel. Many Falasha died on the dangerous journey or were arrested. The anemic nature of the rescue mission caused the American Association for Ethiopian Jews American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) and many other Jewish organizations to denounce Israeli efforts as halfhearted. Unknown to them was the fact that a much bigger operation was planned. Israeli intelligence agents worked with Sudanese officials to create a one-thousand-meter desert airstrip near the two main refugee camps, from which Ethiopian Jews could be airlifted directly to Israel. Conceptually, Operation Moses was born, but the airstrip took two years to build.

During the interval, the Sudanese president, General Gaafar Muhammad al-Nimeiri, Nimeiri, Gaafar Muhammad al- who was receiving funds and military aid from both the United States and Israel for his cooperation, was increasingly falling under the pressures of growing anti-Israeli sentiment. In Ethiopia, anti-Zionism was reflected by the closing of Jewish schools, prohibition of Jewish religious worship, and a clamp-down on illegal immigration. During 1980, only 1,300 Falasha were brought to Israel. Protests about the small numbers and questioning of Israel’s sincerity by the AAEJ led Israeli intelligence agents to try a new tactic. A sealift would be carried out while work was done to complete the airstrip vital to Operation Moses. A variety of boats ranging from beach landing craft to speedboats to submarines were used to bring hundreds of Falasha out of the Sudan. However, an armed conflict between Sudanese police and Israeli intelligence agents in March of 1982 led to exposure of the sea operation and its immediate suspension. Instead, Israel reverted to sporadic air operations. Over the next two years, there were six operations involving nine planes.

Conditions worsened in the summer of 1982, when Ethiopia entered a long period of drought resulting in both starvation and civil war. From 1983 to 1984, a flood of desperate and sick refugees fled to the Sudan, where they remained stuck. In the Sudan, General Nimeiri faced mounting political opposition and had only a tenuous hold on power. He received both Israeli and U.S. military aid and economic assistance to turn a blind eye to the concerted airlift operation. The flights began on November 21, 1984, with the airlift of 250 Ethiopian Jews. Until December 23, a flight was made every two days. After December 23, daily flights were made. In all, thirty-six flights rescued some 7,800 Ethiopian Jews. The flights were protected by Israeli commandos, although there were no incidents.

Ironically, a number of articles in the Jewish press, a fund-raising campaign in the United States for Operation Moses, and confirmation of the operation by Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres Peres, Shimon caused the “covert” operation to come to a halt on January 5, 1985, as rage about the operation echoed throughout the Arabic world. Nearly 1,000 Jews were left behind in the Sudan. However, most of them were rescued in March, 1985, in a covert CIA-sponsored airlift termed Operation Joshua. Six Hercules transport planes were refitted in Frankfurt, Germany, painted in desert camouflage, and flown to the same landing strip used in Operation Moses. The entire operation was completed in two hours.

Significance

Rescue operations for Operation Moses proved to be a moderate success. Without incident, more than half of the Ethiopian Jews were brought out of the Sudan to Israel, yet approximately 15,000 Falasha many of whom were either children or the elderly, unable to make the journey to Sudan were left behind in Ethiopia. Families were separated, adding to the problems of the Ethiopian Jews as they tried to adjust to a new culture and the demands of a highly technological society. Over the years, the plight of the Jews who remained in Ethiopia worsened, as did the conditions of drought and civil war.

Events reached emergency proportions in May, 1991, as the fall of the Mengistu government seemed imminent. The Israeli government under Yitzhak Shamir, Shamir, Yitzhak operating with full U.S. support, hastily gathered $35 million in bribe money, organized a tactical force of some two hundred elite Israeli commandos, and outfitted thirty-four jumbo jets, painted in desert camouflage and unmarked. On May 24, 1991, in a single-day operation, 14,324 Falasha were brought from the airport at Addis Abba to Israel. Only a few hundred remained behind in Ethiopia. This airlift, termed Operation Solomon, completed the dream of bringing the Jewish population of Ethiopia to Israel. Operation Moses Jews;Ethiopian evacuation Refugees;Ethiopian Jews

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bard, Mitchell G. From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics Behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. A well-organized and clear analysis of the origins of Ethiopian Jews, early rescue efforts, major operations, and the contemporary situation of Beta Israel. Well footnoted with index and a selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parfitt, Tudor. Operation Moses: The Untold Story of the Secret Exodus of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. New York: Stein & Day, 1985. An early account of the behind-the-scenes activities that went into the planning and the execution of Operation Moses. Illustrated, maps, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rapoport, Louis. Redemption Song: The Story of Operation Moses. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. An insider’s analysis of Operation Moses by an outstanding journalist for the Jerusalem Post. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spector, Stephen. Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Based on more than two hundred interviews and unpublished documents, this is a suspenseful account of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews culminating in Operation Solomon.

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