Review: Red Sea Spies

This book offers an in-depth account of the Mossad’s daring rescue operation of Ethiopian Jews, says Ben Weich


Red Sea Spies by Raffi Berg (Icon Books, £16.99)

The story of the Red Sea diving resort that was used to smuggle Ethiopian Jews through Sudan to Israel has been well-worn in recent years.

Largely powered by the publicity around the 2019 Netflix movie starring Chris Evans and Michael K Williams, there have been numerous articles in the Israeli and Jewish diaspora press, including interviews with living relatives of those involved.

Speaking to the JC in November, Naftali Aklum, brother of the late Farede Aklum, who masterminded the initial Jewish exodus from Ethiopia, accused The Red Sea Diving Resort film of simplifying the story — even pushing a narrative of the “white saviour”.

By contrast, Raffi Berg’s new book, Red Sea Spies offers an in-depth account of the Mossad’s daring rescue operation.

Berg, the Middle East editor of the BBC World News website, has apparently written this book after undertaking countless interviews with key figures closest to the action.

The aspect of the rescue which has grabbed the most headlines is, of course, the “fake” diving resort on the Sudanese coast which, in the 1980s, provided cover for the stirring smuggling operation.

Raffi Berg’s portrayal of this is compelling. He provides a startling amount of detail of the day-to-day activities – putting the reader right there in the sand with the Mossad agents. Though it has to be said that this sometimes, deprives the story of effective dramatic pacing. It is also occasionally undermined by Berg’s own somewhat pedestrian prose, which can reduce the story to a mere chronological list of events.

But Berg does richly deserve plaudits on two counts in particular. Firstly, he offers exceptional reporting from the heart of the highest echelons of the Israeli establishment.

He gives us the “scoop” of the then Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s private anguish over the fate of the Ethiopian Jews, tortured as he was by the idea that Jews in any corner of the globe had been abandoned to an uncertain fate.

The reader is also treated to as-yet unreported accounts of the series of key decisions made by Mossad top brass. One of Red Sea Spies’s most dramatic moments comes when senior staff are forced to consider pulling the entire project when the agents’ cover appears to have been blown.

Unlike other retellings of this story, Raffi Berg’s shows how the Ethiopian Jews, determined as they were to return to the Holy Land after two millennia, played a crucial role in their own escape. Despite its glossy cover, Red Sea Spies is no pulp fiction but the definitive, behind-the-scenes account, written for those with a serious political interest in one of the Mossad’s most daring and outlandish humanitarian missions.

Raffi Berg will tell the story of the ‘fake’ resort on March 4 at Jewish Book Week 2020. Ben Weich is a JC writer

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