"I have no idea where my mother is buried. Now I will be able to unite with her memory and the memory of my brother," Yaakov Gonchel, 29, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1982, said Wednesday.
More than two decades after a large wave of immigration from Ethiopia arrived in Israel, a memorial commemorating the 4,000 members of the community who perished on the long journey to the holy land was finally inaugurated in Jerusalem.
The memorial was erected with the help of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.
"This took many years, during which many people have not had a proper opportunity to mourn," Gonchel explained.
The mass departure of Ethiopian Jews from their country as part of the "Moshe Operation" began in 1983, when thousands started moving clandestinely towards the Sudanese border. During their journey and stay in temporary camps in Sudan they endured murders, rapes, diseases, robberies and hunger.
Some 8,000 were flown from Sudan to Israel in the framework of the "Moshe Operation".
Uri Rada, chairman of the Ethiopian Jews Remembrance Fund, who lost his mother on the journey to Israel, told Ynet: "This was a kind of holocaust for the Ethiopian community. Most of us don't talk about it to this day, because this is a very emotionally charged subject for the community."…
The number of EJs that tried to reach Sudan in 1983-84 is probably closer to 14,000. Hundreds died on the way, hundreds more in the refugee camps, and several thousand died trying to walk back to Sudan after Operation Moses was halted by the Sudanese government after leaks in the Israeli and American media. Those leaks are directly traceable to the highest levels of the Israeli government. Operation Moses stopped on Friday January 5, 1985 after then-PM Shimon Peres held a press conference confirming the airlift while nonsensically asking people not to talk about it. Sudan killed the airlift moments after Peres stopped speaking.
It is worth noting that the NY Times and Boston Globe both had the story of the airlift more than a month earlier. They held their stories on the direct request of the US State Department, convinced that publishing meant killing Jews. The Washington Jewish Week was then tipped by a person close to the Israeli leadership. It refused the Stae Department's plea and published the story. The NY Times and Boston Globe were furious, and published their stories. The airlift did not end because President Ronald Regan upped the amoiunt of bribe money the US was paying the Sudanese leadership. As long as Israel did not officially acknowledge the airlift, the Sudanese had enough cover to let the airlift continue. That is why Peres called his press conference, whose only possible purpose was to derail the airlift. Thousands more EJs died horrific deaths as a result of Peres' actions.
A lesson to be learned here is that the airlift succeeded because the US paid for them and backed them with the entire weight of the US Government, and that publicizing the airlift endangered lives.
Now imagine the airlift had worked this way: EJs airlifted from Sudan and taken to hotels in Cyprus, where they would have lived for a few days while undergoing a conversion process. From there, the EJs would have been flown to Israel. What kind of publicity would have been generated by dropping off starving, disease-ridden Africans in the middle of Cyprus (or Rome, another suggested location)? The airlift would have been leaked earlier and more EJs would have died as a result, probably along with a few Israeli agents.
Yet this insane plan (one, it must be stressed, that the government of Cyprus – and the Italian government – would not agree to) is the plan pushed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in his responsa to me. When I received Rav Moshe's answer, I told him this would never work, that the plan was impossible. His response was that we should try and that it should be our first resort.
There is a lot one can say – little of it good – about the judgement of someone who suggests this type of Rube Goldberg behavior. (As, indeed, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef points out about Rav Moshe, in language no more polite than mine.) Yet Rav Moshe wanted them all rescued. He wanted them all educated in Orthodox Judaism lest they be lost to the Jewish people, and he forbade discrimination against them, especially discrimination based on skin color.
But the bottom line is clear. Many Ethiopian Jews died unnecessarily because of the actions of other Jews, and even more would have died if haredi rabbis had been followed. And, of course, almost no one cares about any of this.
Halakhic background on Ethiopian Jews can be found here. The Rebbe's letter to me on rescuing Ethiopian Jews is here, along with other documents of interest. Agudath Israel's attitude toward rescue can be seen here. And an interesting tidbit on haredim and Holocaust rescue is here.