“They Boarded the Planes in Complete Silence”

This blog post is the second post about HIAS and Ethiopian Jewry. See the first post here.

A drought and famine, which was spurred on by the civil war, killed between 400,000 and 600,000 Ethiopians from 1983-1985, mainly in the northern part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the fighting, poor economy, conscription starting at age 12, famine, and political repression, mostly going to Sudan. Among these refugees were thousands of Beta Israel.

In late 1984, after several years of secret negotiations between the Mossad and the Sudanese government, and with United States government intervention, a coordinated effort between the Israel Defense Forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States embassy in Khartoum, mercenaries, Sudanese state security forces, Sudanese Muslims, and the secret police of Sudan resulted in the first airlift of Beta Israel, which was known as Operation Moses. Over six weeks, starting on November 21, 1984, more than 30 Trans European Airways flights, each carrying 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time, clandestinely flew approximately 7,200 to 8,000 Beta Israel to Israel via Brussels. Operation Moses ended on January 5, 1985, after Sudan’s Arab allies became aware of the operation through a leak in the press and pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from going to Israel via Sudan.

Beta Israel2
Guidelines on Ethiopian Jewry sent in the wake of a press leak in January 1985.

This stranded approximately 800-1,000 Beta Israel in Sudanese refugee camps. In late March 1985, six United States Air Force planes brought these remaining Jews to southern Israel in Operation Joshua. This second airlift followed a secret appeal to President Reagan by all 100 U.S. senators to save the Ethiopians Jews.

Beta Israel1
Letter sent to Presdient Ronald Reagan by HIAS president Robert L. Israeloff after Operation Joshua.

From 1985-1990, the Ethiopian government made it very difficult for Ethiopian Jews to leave the country for Israel. In late 1990 and early 1991, the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces took advantage of political changes in the Ethiopian civil war as rebel forces began to gain ground against the government, and made covert plans to get the Beta Israel to Israel. The final large-scale airlift of Beta Israel took place from May 24 to May 25, 1991, and was known as Operation Solomon. 40 non-stop Israeli flights between Ethiopia and Israel using 35 civilian and military airplanes, including one Ethiopian airliner, transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. This was achieved in part due to United States government pressure. At one point overnight, 28 aircraft were in the air at one time. All of the flights were crammed with passengers, often two or three people to a seat and, in many cases, the seats had been removed to accommodate as many people as possible, up to 1,122 passengers on one plane. The immigrants were met by ambulances on the tarmac in Israel. 300 elderly and frail passengers, as well as seven babies, including one set of twins, who were born on the planes, and their mothers, were transported directly to the hospital.

Beta Israel3
Memo to the HIAS Executive Committee after Operation Solomon discussing HIAS’ previously unpublicized role in the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

After the conclusion of Operation Solomon, HIAS published a long press release detailing the organization’s role in helping thousands of Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel. The story particularly highlighted the work of Haim Halachmi, the director of HIAS’ office in Israel, who had been an integral part of the movement from the beginning in the mid-1970s. President Ben Zion Leuchter felt it was important that the public knew that HIAS had been deeply involved in the rescue of the Beta Israel for many years, even when it had been too dangerous for the organization to publicly acknowledge this fact.

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One thought on ““They Boarded the Planes in Complete Silence”

  1. Wonderful details on HIAS’ involvement in the three large airlifts of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s. I found most interesting the 1991 memo from HIAS President Ben Zion Leuchter to the HIAS board, when he was finally able to give some of the background on the work of Haim Halachmi and the HIAS office in Israel over so many years. In addition to the HIAS collection, AJHS holds extensive records on the Ethiopian Jewry movement in the United States, and other parts of the story can be found in other AJHS collections including the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ); the Hadassah and Amit collections, whose medical and educational infrastructures in Israel helped ease resettlement in Israel for many of the Ethiopian families; and the Papers of Graenum Berger, the founder of the AAEJ.

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