Remembering Princeton Lyman, the American Diplomat Who Helped Arrange the Rescue of Ethiopian Jews

August 29, 2018 | Ron Kampeas
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Princeton Lyman, a career diplomat born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, died on Friday at the age of eighty-two. While his most celebrated accomplishment was probably his role in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, he also played a crucial part in Operation Moses—Israel’s successful airlift of Ethiopian Jews in 1984. Ron Kampeas writes:

In a 1999 oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Lyman said he was one of only two U.S. diplomats who was fully apprised of the operation, involving secret flights from Sudan to Israel. He helped coordinate logistics between Israel and Sudan, which did not have diplomatic relations, and strove to keep at bay Ethiopian Jewry-advocacy groups in the United States who were scrambling for information, as well as the media.

“We had to keep the press quiet,” he said in 1999. “The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the New York Times, [and] the Wall Street Journal all had the story. Peter Jennings at ABC had the story. I had to go to every single one of them to beg them to sit on the story. I told them that if the operation were to go public, the Ethiopians would be in serious danger. I must say that every one of the media outlets suppressed the information they had; I don’t think that today that would be possible.” . . .

“Unfortunately, the Israeli media were not so disciplined” as the U.S. media, Lyman said. Once the word was out in Israel, a Washington Jewish newspaper reported the story—ignoring Lyman’s pleas—and the U.S. media felt free to publish. Sudan suspended the operation after 9,000 Jews had arrived, leaving 500 stranded. Vice-President George H.W. Bush then got involved.

Bush “went to Khartoum to see [the Sudanese president Gaafar] Nimeiri and to tell him that we wanted the last few hundred Ethiopians taken out,” Lyman said. “Nimeiri agreed, but it too was to be a secret operation. So American C-130s were to fly from Europe to the Sudan, take them on board, fly them up through the Red Sea—avoiding Egyptian radar—and deliver them to Israel. That was done. It was a magnificent operation which I monitored from the Pentagon ‘war room’ listening to the radio broadcasts as the planes landed and took off.”

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