Israel’s Daring Efforts to Bring Ethiopian Jews to Their Homeland

April 17, 2020 | Stephen Daisley
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After his election to the Israeli premiership in 1977, one of Menachem Begin’s first orders to the Mossad was “Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.” This directive bore fruits, some seven years later, in the form of Operation Moses, a massive effort that clandestinely brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state. To pull it off, Israeli spies created a fake diving resort on the Sudanese coast as a cover for their activities. The story is the subject of a 2019 film, and also a book by Raffi Berg titled Red Sea Spies. Praising the book as both accurate and “vivid,” Stephen Daisley writes in his review:

By day, [the Mossad agents] ran their diving resort; by night, they snuck Jews out of the refugee camps in Sudan to which they had journeyed. Cut off from other Jews for millennia, the Beta Israel, [as Ethiopian Jews call themselves], believed themselves the last of the Israelites and were astonished to learn that Jews could be Europeans.

Initially, they were spirited through the desert to a coastal point near [the resort]. There, special forces lay waiting with dinghies to row them to a naval ship in the Red Sea, which in turn delivered them “home” to Israel. The risk of discovery and death hung over these danger-drenched night crawls; the dinghies had to be abandoned after Sudanese troops mistook them for smugglers one night and opened fire.

The Mossad switched to airlifts, flying out Beta Israel from a disused British airstrip, although this only drew more attention, and the operatives had a series of close calls. In the end, Jerusalem paid off Khartoum and was allowed to transfer a further 6,000 Jews to Israel, provided they did so in secrecy, for the Sudanese president Jaafar Nimeiri feared a backlash from Arab allies.

The scope of the operation was as breathtaking as it was daring. “What the Mossad’s mission amounted to,” Berg writes, “was having to engineer a mass exodus of an unknown number of nationals of a foreign, hostile state, people who spoke no Hebrew, were antiquated in their ways, barely traveled, and distrusted strangers.”

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