Some of my international university students just returned from Ethiopia. The trip is optional for gap year students learning about the Jewish People There is a backstory to the Ethiopian Jews returning home to Zion that is more exciting and fraught with Israel’s good intentions and courageous deeds that continues decades later.
Their travel guide was one of my Ethiopian Jewish former students who is now a serial entrepreneur living back in Ethiopia. “It’s not like anything in any country I’ve seen before,” one young woman from South Africa tells our class in Middle East politics.
And the students joined Ethiopians still living there in prayer with tallis and tefillin. The women dress modestly. They eat kosher, observe the Shabbat, and study Jewish texts with visiting rabbis, she told the class. But controversy exists in Israel over whether these remaining practicing Jews have any claim to Jewish lineage. Yet, despite that, Israel is bringing them to Zion because nobody gets left behind.
“Why don’t they bring the rest of (the Ethiopians) to Israel now,” asks another incredulous student? “There’s only a handful left and they told us their relatives are already here. It’s really wrong what Israel is doing.” Right or wrong, this young student gives short shrift to the nuances and definitions of “who is a Jew,” so perhaps some explaining is in order.
Rachel Sylvetsky, an editor at Arutz Sheva, on the other hand, has first-hand experience in this field. She ran a youth village for 500 at-risk high schoolers in northern israel, many of them from Ethiopia, for many years, where she and a dedicated staff put their hearts into absorbing teenage immigrants from Ethiopia. While doing so, they learned about their history, got to know their families and traditions about which the students performed original plays, sometimes laughing at themselves and sometimes looking for themselves. The youth village choir sang in Amharit and Hebrew, the entire village celebrated the Sigd holiday with Ethiopian foods and prayers, evveryone mourned on Jerusalem Day which was set aside to memorialize the 4000 Ethiopian Bete Israel who died in the deserts walking to Sudan, hoping to reach their longed-for "Yerusalem."
She - telling me proudly of the successes of students who came through the open door of her home daily, learning to daven and lead the daily prayers from her husband while they learned to solve math problems with her, going on to become IDF officers, professionals, and even a Miss Israel, while not minimizing the difficulties they face - explains the situation to me like this:
“There is a vast difference between the Ethiopian Bete Israel who walked through Sudan in the first aliya, one of whom I hired as the first Ethiopian oleh rabbi in the Israeli educational system, and the later falashmura who converted to Christianity decades ago for economic reasons. Israel accepted them anyway and they underwent conversion as families because it was really hashava, 'return to Judaism', the rabbinate decided, not conversion, but it was far from an easy decision. There were also Ethiopians who managed to falsify their personal information to come with them and there was a need for care. No country can accept people without consideration, certainly not tiny Israel.” Those remaining in Ethiopia are being “returned`’to Judaism by Israel to Zion on humanitarian grounds and offered the opportunity to undertake special conversions.
Israel’s seminal mission is to never leave behind a Jewish refugee. It has fulfilled the mission triumphantly. There are 65 million refugees worldwide in 2019, and not one refugee is a Jew without a country.
Israel’s seminal mission is to never leave behind a Jewish refugee. It has fulfilled the mission triumphantly. There are 65 million refugees worldwide in 2019, and not one is a Jew without a country to which to flee.
Israel’s Operations Moses, Brotherhood and Solomon decamped nearly 100,000 exilic Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and1990s. In thrilling adventures, the kind of which books are written and Hollywood movies are made, teams of Mossad agents,
IDF members and civilians, with the help of America and other countries, planned, organized and went deep into hostile nations of Ethiopia and Sudan. Sudan sent armies in ‘48 and ‘73 to fight against Israel. It was in Khartoum following the Six Days War the Arab Summit rejected any peace with Israel. So, Mossad had to construct cover stories for its Operations.
Nothing stopped the Israelis or the Jewish Ethiopians. They walked across vast deserts to meet Israeli agents who packed them into the largest airplanes on earth and transported others aboard camouflaged ships. They bravely flew miles above and across unsuspecting African countries and waterways sandwiched between enemy Arab countries in their Return to Zion.
The stories about Operation Moses are engrossingly told in Mossad Exodus (Geffen Publishing House, 2018). Former Mossad agent Gad Shimron is an author with boots-on-the-ground experience. The book is hard to put down. It is gripping. Shimron writes like any great spy novelist fraught with background, but these are true adventures. The reader feels the pain and angst of the Ethiopians and the brotherly commitment of the Israelis. That’s why a Hollywood movie based on the book is in production.
The inspiration came from newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin beseeched the Mossad Chief, “I ask you to use the Mossad to find a way to bring these dear Jews to Israel. Bring the Ethiopian Jewry to me.”
The Bete Israel Jews in Ethiopia suffered from famine, political and religious oppression, violence, and were under the suspicious eyes of neighbors willing to inform authorities. The Israelis needed a cover story. The Mossad purchased from Italians and remodeled a bankrupt tourist resort on the sea as cover for the true mission. They refurbished an abandoned, dusty airstrip. Both were staging areas to extricate the Ethiopians. There are eight pages of pictures in the book giving gravitas and color.
There is plenty of gossip Shimron shares. He talks about interpersonal relationships. There are swashbuckling characters. One has the courage that borders on insanity. Field agents resent the big egos of their bosses they find mendacious and petty. His Khartoum bar description and encounters remind me of Bogart in Casablanca. “A couple of Hungarian musicians, a pianist, and a violinist, provided musical ambiance in the bar, which boasted the romantic name Sunset.” Then there are the peripatetic international agencies representatives, charity workers, and Swedish nurses.
The reader learns from Shimron that operations are lurching works in progress despite planning to the smallest detail. Timing and preparedness build teamwork. Practice turns behaviors into habits and instinct.
Then there are the unanticipated buggers making the reader bite nails to the quick. Things turn bad for the most innocuous reasons and nearly scupper the operations:
• Avoid suspicious looking phone activity; it is best to stay in touch with headquarters calling “from the outhouse.”
• Sand dust eats away at mechanical devices causing trucks to break down.
• Food storage and distribution equipment must be upgraded in the field or famine lurks.
• Threaten the mission to medevac a young girl with a high fever.
• Chase an elderly woman who has run off into the desert fearful of the noise from the huge airplanes.
• Do not engage when a Sudanese unit fires a SAM missile at a Hercules transport plane and another launches a high-speed chase after the Mossad.
• A foreign aid worker starts talking in Hebrew to the agents and nearly blows their cover. “I know you are Israelis…Only Israelis cut their salad vegetables so thin.”
Shimron movingly writes, “I’m no longer objective about anything pertaining to Ethiopian Jews. I admire them, their inner calm and the stamina that enabled them to stand up to terrible hardships on their way to freedom. It is the stamina of heroes. And their smiles and the sound of laughter of Ethiopian children have a unique sound. I heard it for the first time in that remote wadi somewhere in eastern Sudan.”
About Israel, “Our mission in Sudan was one of the sorts that made the Mossad a legend in the spy world. What other country would be ready to invest tens of millions of dollars to set up an operational infrastructure for secret activity in an enemy country, involving large army forces, only to save several thousand famished refugees in civil war-torn Africa?” Only Israel!
Next time a college near you allows Students for Justice in Palestine to hold a mendacious and evil Israel Apartheid Week, remind them that the US slave trade was facilitated by Muslims, while the return to Zion for Ethiopian Jewry was carried out by Israel's Mossad and their absorption into the country accompanied by dedicated Israelis.
Dr. Harold Goldmeier teaches Middle East Politics in Tel Aviv and is a free public speaker to business and community groups. He was an R&T Fellow at Harvard and manages an investment fund.