On this day: Operation Solomon

May 24 1991: Dramatic airlift to Israel

By Jennifer Lipman, May 19, 2011

In one of the most impressive rescue missions in history, Israel achieved what seemed impossible. In a day, as Jews around the world celebrated Shavuot, more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel, the country they had long hoped to see.

Operation Solomon, which followed the Operation Moses rescue of some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in secret in the mid-1980s, was an ambitious and daring plan.

Work to bring the remainder of the Beta Israel community to Israel had largely ceased until 1991, when Ethiopia was at the brink of regional war. When the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu fled the country, Israel saw a time and opportunity to act.

It took a large sum of money, some 34 flights and more than 36 hours to complete, with planes emptied to make more space for passengers. Mmore people came off the planes than on, as up to seven babies were born during the flights.

After the mission was proclaimed a success, Israel's then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told the world: "We've stood up to our obligation and completed the operation bringing all the Jews. It gives us a feeling of strength."

What the JC said: Everyone who flew on Operation Solomon with the 14,000 Ethiopian immigrants came away with an image that distilled it all. For some it was the little boy on the first Jumbo who raced ecstatically down the steps to touch the tarmac of the promised land…For me it was a double image: Shamai, the self-assured young Ethiopian-Israeli with a gold chain and a "Chai" around his neck and sunglasses propped on his Afro hairdo, translating instructions and explanations in Amharic over the Boeing 707's loudspeaker. And, squatting on the floor among the 450 immigrants, a cheeky village boy, 10 or 12 years old, wide-eyed, but spirited, drinking it all in. Shamai was that boy ten years on.

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Last updated: 9:11am, May 24 2011