23 May 2011
Synagogue door near Gonder, Ethiopia
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.
By Shalva Weil for 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 u p 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).