As prime minister, the late Yitzhak Shamir authorized and oversaw one of the most dramatic mass rescues in recent history: the airlift of over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel in less than a day and a half in May 1991. The Israelis plucked the Falashas from imminent danger in that operation, flying them out of the Ethiopian capital at the climactic moment of a civil war, with rebel forces surrounding the city.
But the mission, which came to be known as Operation Solomon, was not a simple matter of rescuing Jews in peril. Less than two years earlier, the Ethiopian Jews faced no grave risk. To the contrary, they were safe in their villages in the Gondar region of the Ethiopian highlands, living much as they had for generations as tenant farmers and artisans. The Ethiopian aliyah had reached a crescendo with the secret Israeli airlift of the Falashas from camps in Sudan in 1984-85. But the Sudanese halted that mission after it was revealed publicly. Since then, the aliyah had slowed significantly, and by the late 1980s, the Ethiopian Jewish community was split in two. Almost every Jewish family in Gondar had relatives who had reached Israel and whom they had not seen in years. There seemed to be little prospect of reviving the immigration movement.
Then history took a turn. The Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing, and Mikhail Gorbachev told the brutal Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam that he would drastically cut back weapons shipments to the African nation. For Mengistu, this couldn’t have come at a worse moment: He was facing increasingly successful rebel advances against his army. In desperation, Mengistu turned to Israel, and in November 1989 he dispatched a trusted official to meet with Shamir in Jerusalem with the aim of renewing diplomatic relations.
Each side wanted something. Ethiopia wanted lethal weapons. Israel wanted to revive its former ties with Ethiopia, which had been a key ally, along with Iran and Turkey, in David Ben-Gurion’s Periphery Strategy. Jerusalem also wanted to gather in the remaining Falashas. The chief rabbinate had ruled that they were authentic Jews, and Israel had established their right to emigrate under the Law of Return.
According to Israeli diplomatic officials, Mengistu secretly promised to let 500 Ethiopian Jews leave the country each month. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources have revealed that Mengistu submitted a voluminous shopping list of materiel, including weapons—though the dictator always insisted that there was no connection between the arms and the aliyah. What Shamir actually agreed to is unclear, since the Israelis claim that more was promised than was actually delivered. (By early 1990, though, former President Jimmy Carter and the George H.W. Bush Administration accused Israel of having sent cluster bombs; a congressional report in February 1990 confirmed this.)
The United States demanded that Israel send no arms at all to a dictator with so much blood on his hands. Reuven Merhav, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said later that he had decided independently not to send arms to prop up Mengistu. The Ethiopian leader might use them on civilians, including the Falashas, Merhav reasoned. In any case, why arm him when he faced imminent defeat? Merhav proposed that Israel send food, economic aid, and medical assistance instead—and he offered to use his country’s influence with America to help Ethiopia. Prime Minister Shamir approved that policy and appointed Uri Lubrani as his special envoy to Addis Ababa. Lubrani had been ambassador to Ethiopia at the time of Haile Selassie, Israel’s representative to Uganda under Idi Amin, and Iran under the Shah. He had extensive dealings with dictators and had served Israel in impossible situations. It would be his job to negotiate the Falashas’ release with Mengistu.
However, shortly after the renewal of Israeli-Ethiopian ties, an American nonprofit organization called the American Association of Ethiopian Jews took steps to force Israel to act more quickly to enable the Ethiopian aliyah. Without consulting anyone (at least not officially) they dispatched agents to the Jewish villages in Gondar, urging people to come to Addis Ababa at once. They paid for trucks, buses, and boats to bring them down by the thousands. Others made their way on foot, or sold their possessions to pay for bus tickets and bribes. Once the migration began, none of the Falashas wanted to be left behind. They said later that they had risked everything because they wanted to go to Jerusalem. Their ancestors had yearned to go to Zion, and this was their chance.
Within months, nearly the entire Jewish community (as it was then recognized), some 20,000 people, made their way to Addis, a sprawling, impoverished shantytown already swollen with refugees from the long civil war. There was no sufficient infrastructure to accommodate them. Nor was there enough food, clothing, or medical services. The Ethiopian Jews expected the Israelis to reunite them with their children and other family members quickly. Instead, they became subject to international forces of which they were entirely innocent. Israeli and American officials quickly concluded that Mengistu had realized he could hold the Jews hostage in order to demand weapons from Israel. The Falashas thus became living chips in a game of international political poker in which the stakes were the Ethiopian government’s survival, and their own. Thousands of them spent up to a year or longer in degrading slum conditions. Many children died.
Against this background, Shamir authorized Lubrani to negotiate for the release of the Jews. Logically, this could not succeed: The Israelis could not give Mengistu arms, the one thing that he needed in order to survive. And yet it did succeed, at the last moment, as the Ethiopian government collapsed and the rebels stood ready to take Addis Ababa.
Israeli and American officials acted in concert. The U.S. National Security Council arranged for Mengistu to flee the country. President Bush 41 sent a personal appeal to the acting president of Ethiopia, urging him to make the “humanitarian gesture” of letting the Jews leave—in return for $35 million to be raised by the American Jewish community, as overseen by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Through the National Security Council’s intervention, the Ethiopian rebels agreed to stand down for 48 hours, long enough for Operation Solomon to take place.
With Shamir’s approval, the IDF and the Foreign Ministry had been planning the rescue for months, but now they had only one day in which to put their plans into effect. They removed seats from aircraft and called up pilots, troops, and doctors. The Jewish Agency opened and staffed 49 new absorption centers overnight (the existing absorption centers were already overflowing with immigrants from the Soviet Union).
Early on Friday morning, May 24, 1991, Shamir gave the green light and the mission began. Repeatedly through that day and night, Ethiopian officials threatened to abort the rescue—because nobody had notified the civil aviation authorities, because the $35 million hadn’t been transferred, then because the BBC had prematurely announced that the mission was underway. Through it all, Israeli officials negotiated and improvised—bribing bus drivers, police, and others. For 34 hours, a small armada of Israeli planes landed at the Addis airport, filled up with Ethiopian Jews, many of whom sat on floor mats, then took off into the thin air of Addis, and headed back to Israel—all without turning off their engines.
Shamir greeted the first plane to land at Ben-Gurion Airport. As hundreds of excited Jewish Agency workers, IDF and security personnel, dignitaries, and others, broke into spontaneous applause, Shamir declared of the Falashas: “They are the remnants of a Jewish community that lasted for thousands of years, who are now coming back to their country. … They have come back to their homeland.”
For the Ethiopian Jews, however, the challenges of life in Israel had only just begun.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.