Middle East History: It Happened in May; Jews from Ethiopia Face Discrimination on Arrival in Israel

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN MAY; Jews From Ethiopia Face Discrimination On Arrival in Israel

By Donald Neff

It was five years ago, on May 25, 1991, that Israel airlifted the last 15,000 Jews from embattled Ethiopia and flew them to Israel in a daring emergency operation. The action, called Operation Solomon, lasted 36 hours and involved 35 cargo planes flying the 1,500-mile route to Israel with the black Jews, called Falashas in Hebrew. 1 The rescue operation came as rebel forces were closing in on the capital of Addis Ababa amid frantic diplomatic efforts by Israel and the United States to have the tottering government grant permission for the Jews to leave. In the end, a $35 million bribe by Israel and direct pleas to Ethiopia by President George Bush secured their release. 2

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was on hand in Israel to greet the first of the arrivals in 1984, saying: "It's a great moment for all our people, all our country, for Jewish people all over the world. Now they are here and they are Israeli citizens, so no one will persecute them anymore." 3 Eleven years later the Falasha community rioted, charging that Israel systematically discriminated against them because they were black.

The odyssey of the Falashas is a tale of daring and social inequity in present-day Israel. It began in the mid-1980s and was not completed for six years.

An ancient tribe, the Falashas kept their Jewish faith over the millennia in isolation in Ethiopia. Their long history and unique form of Judaism gripped the imagination of some Israelis, casting the Falashas in a romantic and even mythic aura. Ethiopia had long served as a way station for covert Israeli activities in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, its location was important to Israel because of Ethiopia's strategic position on the Horn of Africa at the narrow entrance to the Red Sea at Bab el Mandeb. Activities in Ethiopia were frequently coordinated between the United States and Israel. In addition, Israeli foreign policy for a time saw Ethiopia as a counterbalance on the African continent to Egypt. 4 Because of these strategic interests, Israeli officials traveled regularly to Ethiopia, where they became acquainted with the Falashas and their sufferings. Out of these meetings grew the ambitious idea to bring the entire impoverished community of around 30,000 to Israel. Adding urgency to the plan was the fact that by the 1980s Ethiopia was being torn apart by the Tigre rebellion. Thousands of Falashas were already refugees on the Sudanese border.

The original grandiose enterprise was appropriately named Operation Moses. Begun in deep secrecy in November 1984, it lasted only to the first week of 1985 when an official of the Jewish Agency carelessly referred to it at a public meeting, much to the embarrassment of the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan. Both governments were so weak that to be seen as favoring one ethnic group over another was a threat to their hold on power. The flights were halted immediately.

"A lot of Israelis don't really identify with these people."

About 10,000 Ethiopian Jews had been transported to Israel. But there were still some 20,000 left in Ethiopia and Sudan. Israel called on the United States for help. Under the personal intervention of Vice President George Bush, 1,000 stragglers were allowed by Sudan to be picked up by six U.S. military planes on March 28, 1985. With that, Operation Moses ended, at best only a partial success. 5 It was not until the late 1980s that the Jewish state managed to reopen the pipeline for immigrant Falashas. Marxist President Mengistu Haile Mariam agreed to allow the legal emigration of the Falashas at the rate of 500 per month in exchange for weapons to fight the Tigran rebels. The emigration continued from 1989 until the early summer of 1990, when the flow suddenly stopped. Mengistu demanded that Israel provide Ethiopia with more weapons, including cluster bomb units. …