Today is the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon, the rescue brought 14,310 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours as the communist government of Ethiopia collapsed. While the rescue was a tremendous achievement for Israel, it was negotiated by and made possible by the United States Government – a fact Israeli media, government and intelligentsia often ignores.
Before you read Shalva Weil's article posted below, here are some salient that are not made clear by Dr. Weil:
1. The US negotiated and largely paid for the rescue, just as it negotiated and largely paid for Operation Moses and Joshua before it.
2. US Ambassador Rudy Boschwitz served as a special representative of the President George H.W. Bush and deserves much credit for the rescue as does President Bush.
3. Israel did not tell Ethiopian Jews to gather at the AAEJ compound. Susan Polack of the AAEJ did it on her own, against the wishes of Israel. Gathering the Jews in one place made the rescue possible, and therefore Pollack also deserves much credit for the rescue. What she and Boschwitz did made the rescue possible. Without them, there would have been no Operation Solomon – which, from my personal experience with him, would have been fine with Prime Minister Shamir.
4. None of this information (except, perhaps, the Shamir government's antipathy to the plight of Ethiopian Jews) is secret. It all public. In fact, it is the backbone of Stephen Spector's book – a book Weil mentions but does not accurately cite.
5. Israel, and to a lesser extent Jewish organizations like the Federations, play down the US role. For these American Jewish organizations, that happens because it boosts fundraising by making their own roles look far more important than they really were. For Israel, it happens for a number of complex reasons – foremost among them, I think, an internal need to reassert Israel's machismo at a time when it has suffered militarily at the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.
6. American activists – especially Nate Shapiro of the AAEJ – also played key roles in Operation Solomon. Again, much of what Shapiro and others did is now public information, yet Weil does not mention it.
7. The Israelis who flew the planes and who worked on the ground are also heroes, as are the everyday citizens of Israel who did so many spontaneous acts of kindness to welcome these poor Ethiopian Jews home.
8. On a personal note, I played no role in Operation Solomon, and I make no claims of doing so. I just find it incredibly irritating (and dangerous) that Israelis downplay or ignore the people who did make this rescue happen, unless those people happen to be Israelis, and that many American Jewish leaders now do the same.
9. When people distort history, they create myths that can later lead to disaster if they are believed and acted upon. Just ask the families of any of the Ethiopian Jews who died waiting for rescue pre-Operation Moses. We should not want to risk the lives of future endangered Jewish communities because we chose to believe distorted history, mythologized it and then viewed Israel's willingness to act and its capability to act alone through those distorted eyes.
10. Weil misstates the number of Ethiopian Jews who died in Operation Moses. After Israeli politicians (some from the National Religious Party and some Labor) and American Jewish leaders leaked the operation, Sudan's leader killed Operation Moses. 3,000 Jews tried to walk back to Ethiopia. Most died on the way. That is on top of those who died in theose horrible, diease-ridden refugee camps.
Operation Solomon 20 Years On
Twenty years after Operation Solomon – Israel's dramatic airlift of Jews out of Ethiopia – normalization has almost set in between the two countries. Not only are Ethiopian Jews now being permitted to immigrate to Israel, but those who fled are also returning to Ethiopia as Israelis.
Shalva Weil • ISN Insights
At the end of May 1991, plane after plane brought 14,310 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within a day and a half in an amazing airlift, as the future of Jews in Ethiopia and the future of the Ethiopian government known as the Derg, hung in the balance. The pictures that appeared over and over again on the world's television screens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, dressed in white traditional costume with exquisite hand-woven embroidery, silently filing into the airplanes in order to fulfill the dream of their forefathers of immigrating to Zion, remains imprinted in collective memory. The Jews of Ethiopia had prayed for hundreds of years to return to the land of their fathers.
In 1984-5, some of the Ethiopian Jews - then known by the stigmatic name "Falashas" meaning "strangers" or "outsiders" - had been flown to Israel from the refugee camps of the Sudan in Operation Moses. The head of the military junta, Mengistu Haile Mariam, refused to let the "Falasha" leave Ethiopia. So during the night, Ethiopian Jews stole into the Sudan and from there were airlifted out to Israel by the Mossad. But the airlift was stopped in the middle, after it became known that the Sudanese government, supposedly an enemy of Israel, was implicated. Four-thousand Ethiopian Jews had perished on the journey from Ethiopia to the Sudan, or in the refugee camps. After Operation Moses was terminated, the remaining Jews returned to their villages in Ethiopia and waited. From 1985-1991, a few thousand Ethiopian Jews tried reaching the "Promised Land" by other illegal routes. They wished to be reunited with their families in Jerusalem.
Then an obscure American woman by the name of Susan Pollack, the resident director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) in the capital city of Addis Abeba, an advocacy organization whose raison d'etre was "rescue", intervened. She went from village to village, primarily in the Gondar area of Ethiopia, gathering up Ethiopian Jews and encouraging them to travel to the capital city of Addis Abeba with a view to emigrating to Israel. As the Jews streamed to the capital from 1990-1991, rebel Ethiopian forces headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Meles, Chairman of the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which opposed the military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam, were knocking at the gates waiting to take over the government. Negotiations at the governmental level involving the United States, Israel, Ethiopia and possibly other countries were held to release the Jews and airlift them to Israel.
Still fascinating today, 20 years after what became known as Operation Solomon, is the mystery regarding $35 million that was transferred from Israel to Ethiopia in exchange for the release of Ethiopian Jewry, in the race against time before the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam collapsed. At first, the representative of the Ethiopian government, Kassa Kebede, who today lives in Washington, provided the Israelis with an erroneous bank account number in New York; it was a bonds rather than cash account. More troublesome was the fact that the number was that of a private account and not an official Ethiopian government account.
According to Professor Stephen Spector, who wrote a book about Operation Solomon based on 200 oral history interviews conducted with experts on Ethiopian Jewry, Ethiopian Jewish activists, Israelis involved in the rescue and US Representatives of Congress, the correct bank account number may finally have been provided by Bob Houdek, Chief of Mission in the American Embassy in Ethiopia from 1988 to 1991, who then transferred the information to Israeli Ambassador Asher Naim, who later wrote: "It took Kasa more than two hours to finally come up with the correct number. We took maximum precautions to ensure that no one, but no one, except 'the legal government of Ethiopia' could touch the money. It was in an account that could only be released by the State Department's confirmation of a legal and recognized [Ethiopian] government after the London peace conference. We could only hope that the money would be spent for the benefit of the Ethiopia's [sic] poor".
In hindsight, one cannot help raising an eyebrow at the naivety of the Israeli establishment; on the other hand, without the transfer of huge sums of money to whatever source, the Ethiopian Jews would not have been transferred to Israel today. According to an Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, the money was inherited by the new Ethiopian government, and not taken by an individual.
As the last Jews flew out of Ethiopia, the Derg collapsed and Zenawi took over. In 1995, he was elected Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and re-elected for a second term in 2000. The results of the last legislative elections in 2005, were disputed by contesting parties and led to the death of 193 Ethiopians, but as opposed to some other African leaders, Zenawi managed to squash all protest. Violations of human rights are regularly reported by opposition parties, but the western world appears disinterested. The latest incident occurred on 20 April when Zenawi's representative in the Tigray region, Abay Woldu, with the aid of Federal Police, suppressed a protest with tear gas against the demolition of houses in the city of Mekele in Tigray province, which left thousands homeless. Nevertheless, against all odds, Zenawi has stayed in power for a full 20 years, and, despite the fierce war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in which thousands have purportedly been killed, Ethiopia has remained the most stable country in the Horn of Africa.
Whereas once King Solomon was visited by the Queen of Sheba, who probably originated in Ethiopia, today visits between Ethiopia and Israel are increasingly frequent. Whereas before Operation Solomon, there were no direct flights to Ethiopia from Israel, today Ethiopian Airlines has a monopoly on several direct flights per week between the two countries. Some of these flights are full of new immigrants, the so-called "Felesmura" , 8,700 of whom now have permission to migrate to the Jewish state. In the opposite direction, veteran immigrants, who may have arrived in Israel during Operation Solomon, are often flying to Ethiopia on "roots" trips, or for commercial ventures. The Jerusalem market, Mahanei Yehuda, is full of Ethiopian products from teff, the special nutritious grain grown in Ethiopia, to Ethiopian jewellery and clothes. Several Israeli Ethiopian Jews have import-export businesses, while others are embarking upon agricultural projects in Ethiopia.
Until 1991, Ethiopian Jews were not allowed by Emperor Haile Selassie, or his successor Mengistu Haile Mariam, to leave Ethiopia on the pretext that the "Falashas" were Ethiopian citizens. Today, 20 years after Operation Solomon, normalization has almost set in, and, in addition to the "Felesmura" who are now being permitted to immigrate to Israel, Ethiopians are now returning from the Ethiopian "diaspora" in Israel to Ethiopia as Israelis.
Dr Shalva Weil is Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and President of the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jews (SOSTEJE).
Here is some video footage of Operation Solomon: