Remembering Operation Moses — a true modern miracle

Third grade Ethiopian students in Jerusalem proudly holding pictures and letters from Ruthe Forkush’s third grade Sunday School students at B’nai Amoona.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Operation Moses, the dramatic and high-risk airlifts from November 1984 to January 1985 rescued 8,000 members of the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community from refugee camps in Sudan. The goal was to bring them to new lives in the modern State of Israel.

The Ethiopian Jewish community, once commonly known as the “Falashas,” a term considered offensive by the community itself, is one of the great mysteries of Jewish history. The black-skinned Ethiopian Jews, who call themselves Beta Israel, were discovered by European explorers in the 19th century. According to their own tradition, they were direct descendants of King Solomon of biblical Israel and the Queen of Sheba.  The relationship between Solomon and Sheba produced a son, Prince Menelik. When the Queen of Sheba returned to ancient Abbysinia, Solomon sent an honor guard of Jewish princes who married Ethiopian native women to produce the Ethiopian Jewish community.

There are other theories regarding the origins of the Ethiopian Jewish community, including that they were descended from the Tribe of Dan, a version that was formally accepted by the Israeli High Court and rabbinic rulings. While their exact origins cannot be definitely proved, there is no doubt as to the authenticity of their Jewishness. The Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders are known as Kohanim, or High Priests, and the community accepts all biblical laws, though it does not recognize holidays and festivals such as Purim or Hanukkah, which are based on events that took place after the biblical period.

Whatever their origins, the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community never lost hope that one day they would join their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Promised Land of Israel. An ancient prayer of the Ethiopian Jews states, “Do not separate me from the Chosen, the joy, the light, the splendor. Let me see the light of Israel.”

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During the long reign of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who used the title “Lion of Judah” out of his own respect for King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Jews of that land were impoverished and cut off from the outside world, but were not in physical danger. Sellassie also had a cordial relationship with the State of Israel. The nation was beset by a devastating drought and political unrest, which culminated in his ouster in a 1977 coup led by Maj. Haile Mariam, a radical Marxist, who took over as head of state.

Meanwhile, the increasingly desperate plight of the Ethiopian Jews came to the attention of several American Jewish activists, most notably Harold Lenhoff, a professor at the University of California-Irvine and an early president of the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry (AAEJ). Lenhoff, with the support of a small but determined group of volunteers in the 1970s, began to prod leaders of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel to take steps to allow the Ethiopian Jewish community to emigrate to Israel.

At first, the efforts of the AAEJ were met with a mixture of indifference and resistance by the powers that be, but gradually the movement gained traction, influenced to some extent by the success of the American Soviet Jewry movement. A small trickle of Ethopian Jews were spirited out of Africa and settled in Israel, some of them separating from their parents. By 1984, the AAEJ’s efforts resulted in a majority of American Jews being aware of the plight of the community.

In 1980, St. Louis photographer David M. Henschel traveled to Ethiopia for a first-hand look at the community. He returned with dramatic photos and a compelling story in the Jewish Light, which appeared Dec. 2, 1980 under the headline: “Firsthand report on Falashas: Ethiopia’s Black Jewish community.” Other members of the local Jewish community to visit Ethiopia during this period included David Makovsky, now withthe Washington Institute on Near East Policy and then with the World Union of Jewish Students, and Elsie Shemin Roth, a registered nurse who assisted with on-site medical care.

The real breakthroughs occurred in the period from November 1984-January 1985, in Operations Moses and Joshua. In 1974, there were only 168 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. In November 1984, in Operation Moses, some 8,000 were airlifted to Israel from refugee camps in Sudan to which many of them had walked at great risk to themselves and their families. In January 1985, in Operation Joshua, another 1,000 came. Finally, in May 1991, in Operation Solomon, another 15,000 were rescued, bringing the total number of Ethiopian Jews in Israel to 56,000. In that last major airlift, Norman Leve, who with his wife Fran was co-chair of the 1992 Jewish Federation Campaign, was in Israel at the time of the arrival of the 14,500 Jews from Ethiopia. He told the Jewish Light, “The entire nation of Israel is excited. It’s a beautiful sight to see—the most moving experience of my life.” By 2013 an estimated total of 125,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.

It was the first time in world history that native Black Africans were taken from that continent not in chains to be enslaved, but to begin new lives in the State of Israel.  Many of the Ethiopian Jews had never seen running water or electricity, and had to adjust to life in a modern nation-state.

During the early years, the Ethiopian Jewish community tended to be settled in large communities and were beset by poverty and challenges adjusting to life in the State of Israel. While such challenges still exist, there have also been remarkable success stories, with Ethiopian Jews becoming high-ranking members of Israel’s military, scientists, artists and even stand-up comedians.

While challenges continue, it is no exaggeration to call the rescue of the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community, and their resettlement in Israel a genuine “modern miracle.”