On this day: Operation Moses suspended

January 5 1985: The world learns of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews

By Jennifer Lipman, January 5, 2011

When Israel’s efforts to secure the future of the Ethiopian Jewish community came to light in the international media, the publicity put the mission in danger.

By the beginning of January 1985 Israel had airlifted some 8,000 people from the impoverished, famine-stricken African country.

For those who arrived in Israel, it was the culmination of a lengthy and dangerous and for many, fatal, trek by foot from the remote village of Gondar to Ethiopia’s neighbour, Sudan.

The rescue mission began in November 1984, but was top secret not least because the Sudanese authorities had allowed planes to fly out of there. When reports of the mission emerged, it prompted a furious reaction from around the Arab world.

Fear of Arab reprisal meant that the mission was put on hold, but Shimon Peres, then Israeli prime minister, said it would continue. It did; in 1991 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon.

There are now 85,000 Ethiopian Jews living n Israel, but a further 7,800 from the Falash Mura community – Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity – are still awaiting Israeli citizenship.

In November, 26 years after operation Moses, Israel’s cabinet voted in favour of bringing them over.

What the JC said: As the Ethiopian arrivals disembarked, crowds of Israelis, laden with massive purchases from European shopping expeditions, were leaving their aircraft in another part of the airport, unaware of the high drama of the arrival of the newcomers who had no possessions apart from the clothes they had arrived in…A number of children had died in the camps or during the flight to Israel, and their parents brought their bodies down from the aircraft with them. Many of the newcomers, overcome with emotion at the fulfillment of their dream of arriving in Israel, went down on their knees and kissed the tarmac, like many of the Yemeni Jews who came during Operation Magic Carpet more than 30 years ago.

See more from the JC archives here

Last updated: 9:10am, January 5 2011