In 1989, after 16 years of separation, diplomatic ties between Israel and Ethiopia were renewed and the Ethiopian government allowed several hundred Jews to immigrate to Israel each month.
By CARMIT SAPIR WEITZ
MAY 20, 2021 19:14
"Operation Solomon was a rescue aliyah operation. It was a historic chapter that attests to the ability and desire of the people of Israel to rescue Jews anywhere in the world,” says former shaliach (emissary) Avi Mizrahi, who at the time of Operation Solomon was in charge of Ethiopian airport operations for The Jewish Agency, along with then-IDF deputy chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
“Thousands of people participated, including Jewish Agency staff in Ethiopia and Israel, in cooperation with all of the parties involved – the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mossad, the IDF and especially the air force, American Jewry and the Jewish Federations of North America JFNA [then UJA], as well as the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. More than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were spared from decades of waiting, arriving in Israel via air shuttles within 24 hours.” In his first interview on the 30th anniversary of the operation, he adds, “For me, this operation was the ultimate. What we had wished throughout all our years of activity, happened. Thirty years have passed and I am still excited about it as if it happened yesterday.”
In 1989, after 16 years of separation, diplomatic ties between Israel and Ethiopia were renewed and the Ethiopian government, led by dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, allowed several hundred Jews to immigrate to Israel each month as part of a family reunification program. At the beginning of 1991, the security situation in Ethiopia was shaky, as conflicts between the central government and Mengistu’s opponents intensified. With rising tensions in the country, there was growing concern about the fate of the Ethiopian Jews, and it was decided to bring them to Israel in a rapid-response operation. Some $35 million was paid to the local government with the help of donations from American Jewry, in exchange for its consent to bring the Jews to Israel. The dramatic operation was named “Operation Solomon,” after King Solomon, who according to the biblical narrative, met the Queen of Sheba.
In September 1990, 38-year-old Avi Mizrahi, together with his wife, Orna, and their four young daughters – Kinneret, three; Reut, five; Ma’ayan, nine; and Liron, 13 – traveled to Ethiopia as the shaliach of The Jewish Agency. The Mizrahi family was the first Israeli family sent to Ethiopia, and was followed by others, via the JDC. The two organizations together assisted the members of the community in finding employment, and provided a living allowance, schooling and more. The mission to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel was entrusted to The Jewish Agency’s emissaries. In December 1990, there was an attempted revolution in Ethiopia.
“There had been several attempts in the past, but this time we realized that the situation was different,” says Mizrahi. “Because of the situation, they began returning the families of the Israeli emissaries to Israel, including my wife and four daughters. At the same time, the JDC, with the assistance of The Jewish Agency, prepared a communications network – a group of 120 activists from the community who would assist in dealing with the Jews of Ethiopia should the situation worsen.
“In 1991, we realized that the situation was escalating. Two issues concerned us. One was the question of how the community would survive if the situation deteriorated. The other was the possibility of rescuing Ethiopian Jews before the revolution.
Micha Feldman was in charge of The Jewish Agency delegation in Ethiopia, which consisted of several emissaries. Uri Lubrani was appointed by the Foreign Ministry to negotiate with the authorities to carry out the operation. Together with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mossad and the JDC and the IDF, we began to think about how to get them out within 48 hours,” recalls Mizrahi.
The rebels had already reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
“On the evening of Thursday, May 23, we received approval for the operation. We did not know how to inform everyone. We gathered the group of activists and informed them that the aliyah operation would begin the next day. We were concerned that once the operation became known that there would be many factors that would try to sabotage it. We decided to tell them the truth: ‘There is a secret operation and everyone is making aliyah.’
“WE TOLD THEM to bring everyone to the embassy the next day, without exception. We asked them to bring their families early in the morning and then bring the rest of the community. We prepared the huge courtyard of the embassy as an exit station for the olim [immigrants], and the olim themselves prepared the compound, not knowing that they were preparing it for the upcoming operation.”
One of the challenges was to obtain a fleet of buses that would take the immigrants from the embassy compound to the planes without arousing suspicion. A creative solution was found.
“In order to prepare without giving away the existence of the operation, we organized a trip to the zoo for the students on Thursday, the day before the operation began. This way we could order the buses and plan the transportation of olim from the embassy complex.”
On Friday morning, members of the network began visiting the homes of members of the Jewish community to inform them that they were about to make aliyah to Israel.
“There was tremendous excitement. Many were crying. It is difficult to describe it in words. Some families tried to sell their possessions before leaving for the embassy compound. Some succeeded,” says Mizrahi. “We set up organized stations in the Israeli Embassy complex for the entire process required before aliyah. At one station, we checked the family ID that had been prepared in advance for each family against a picture of the entire family. At another station, numbers were prepared for all immigrants to identify them by organized groups to get to the buses and from there to the planes. The difficulty was that huge numbers of people came to the Israeli Embassy – not just Jews. We only admitted those with the certificates. At that time there was a nightly curfew in Ethiopia. Anyone walking on the street was shot. Together with the authorities, we agreed that the curfew would not apply to our buses.”
Throughout those nerve-wracking hours, additional problems arose that required improvisation and quick fixes: The Ethiopian government requested that an Ethiopian airline plane take part in the operation.
“We arrived at the airport with 200 immigrants and the captain informed us that there were only 150 seats on the plane. I quickly recovered and informed the captain that 50 of the passengers were babies sitting on their parents’ knees.”
More than 100 round-trips of dozens of buses set off, from 6 a.m. Friday until 7 a.m. Saturday.
“It has been said that Operation Solomon lasted 36 hours,” says Mizrahi. “I claim that it was only 24 hours – from the first plane that left Ethiopia on Friday to the last plane that left Ethiopia on Saturday. After transferring everyone from the embassy compound to the runway, I drove to our apartment in Addis Ababa, took a suitcase and joined the last plane in the operation that took off for Israel. We landed in Israel on Saturday around three or four in the afternoon. There was a complete blackout about the operation and nothing was published in the media.
“I got off the plane at the civilian airport section and drove home to Jerusalem. The immigrants continued to the reception held in their honor at the airport. I turned on the TV and saw the immigrants, who just a short time earlier I had accompanied on the big aliyah operation. I could finally relax. All of the immigrants were brought to absorption centers and hotels operated by Jewish Agency personnel in coordination with government ministries.”
What about families who did not arrive on time? Mizrahi joined The Jewish Agency in 1978 as a social worker and began to work with Ethiopian immigrants in 1980, assisting them in their aliyah and absorption in Israel. He led the absorption of immigrants in Operation Moses, and knew he would return to complete the mission. Several months later, after the airport opened in Addis Ababa, he flew to Ethiopia and brought the families who had remained behind.
RACHELI TADESA MALKAI, 38, founder and director of an organization for the empowerment of Ethiopian women, was eight years old when she immigrated to Israel in Operation Solomon with her parents and three younger brothers.
“About a year before our aliyah, a rumor spread that we would soon be able to immigrate to Israel,” she says. During the interview, we found out that her father was one of those from the communications network.
“Dad was very purposeful. I was very stressed. We left overnight for a place I did not know, completely different from what I had known. Were we really being taken to a safe place? We moved to Addis Ababa from a town near Gondar, to be near the embassy. One day we were told that the planes were on their way. Everything was done in secret. We arrived at the embassy courtyard. There were thousands of people with small suitcases and bags of mementos. A number had been written on our foreheads so we could know to which group and plane we belonged. At the airport, planes waited for us with their engines running so that they could depart quickly. The valuables and souvenirs that my parents had brought with them had to be left behind.
They were told that the space on the plane was for people – not belongings.
“When I got on the plane, I felt like I was getting into a big bird. A shiny black plastic sheet was spread out on the floor. There were no seats. They had been taken out, so that there would be as much room as possible for people. After everyone got in, we were told, ‘You can sit down.’ Today I know that these were IDF soldiers in civilian clothes. I sat close to the window because I wanted to see what was happening. I remember the concerns. I said to my mother, ‘Are we really going in the sky with this bird?’ I had never seen planes before.
“The flight took off, and in the middle of the flight there were shouts of a woman kneeling to give birth. We were told to make room for her so that they could assist her in giving birth. There was little room, and I heard whispers. These were very tense moments. One of the guys told a joke to relieve the tension. I could not believe my eyes. It took a few seconds from the moment the baby emerged until he cried. Everyone laughed and applauded. They took the woman aside, wrapped the baby in a blanket and we arrived in Israel. My parents said, ‘Something new has been born. We are on our way to the Holy Land.’
“When the plane landed, no one believed it was real. We had all dreamed from the day we were born of a land flowing with milk and honey. This is what we had heard about the Holy Land. I was curious; is the water that is flowing really milk, and is everyone licking honey? We went down the steps of the plane, and I saw a sight I will never forget: Everyone – big and small, was lying on the tarmac and kissing the Land of Israel. To this day, I tell myself that there are many aliyot, but the aliyah of the Ethiopians was particularly moving.
“It was an aliyah of a people that preserved its Judaism for 2,000 years without any connection to the outside world. It took time and today I can say, it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, with a bit of thorns, but we should not let anyone question us. This is my country like everyone else’s, and my social activity is focused on accepting ourselves as we are – to be proud of who we are and not to hide behind another identity.'
“This milestone anniversary of Operation Solomon serves as a crucial reminder for Israel and world Jewry that all of the Jewish people are responsible for one another. It also shows, once again, that when the global Jewish people collectively rally together around a cause, nothing is impossible,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. “A wonderful example of the power of our unity are the 2,000 new olim The Jewish Agency was able to bring from Ethiopia this past year, despite the pandemic, together with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, with support from global Jewry including the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and other donors from around the world.”
This article was written in cooperation with The Jewish Agency for Israel.
Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.