How Mossad Brings Jews to Zion

Some of my international university students just returned from Ethiopia.  The trip is optional for gap year students learning about the Jewish people.  There is a backstory to the Ethiopian Jews returning home to Zion that is more exciting and fraught with Israel's good intentions that continues decades later.

Their travel guide was one of my Ethiopian Jewish former students who is now a serial entrepreneur living back in Ethiopia.  "It's not like anything in any country I've seen before," one young woman from South Africa told our class in Middle East politics.  The students joined Ethiopians still living there in prayer with tallis and tefillin.  The women dress modestly.  They eat kosher, observe the Shabbat, and study Jewish texts with visiting rabbis, she told the class.  Controversy rages in Israel whether these remaining practicing Jews have any claim to Jewish lineage.  Yet Israel is bringing them home to Zion because nobody gets left behind.

"Why don't they bring the rest of [the Ethiopians] to Israel?" asks another incredulous student.  "There's only a handful left, and they told us their relatives are already here.  It's really wrong what Israel is doing."  Right or wrong, this student and other observers give short shrift to the nuances and definitions of "who is a Jew."

Rachel Sylvetsky, editor at Aurutz Sheva, on the other hand, has firsthand experience in this field.  She explains the situation to me like this:

There is a vast difference between the Ethiopian Bete Israel who walked through Sudan in the first aliya, one of whom I hired as the first Ethiopian oleh rabbi in the Israeli educational system, and the later falashmura who converted to Christianity decades ago for economic reasons.  Israel accepted them anyway, and they underwent conversion as families because it was really "return," not conversion, but it was far from an easy decision.

Those remaining in Ethiopia are being "returned" by Israel to Zion on humanitarian grounds and offered the opportunity to undertake special conversions.

Israel's seminal mission is never to leave behind a Jewish refugee.  It has fulfilled the mission triumphantly.  There are 65 million refugees worldwide in 2019, and not refugee is a Jew without a country to flee to.

Israel's Operations Moses, Brotherhood, and Solomon decamped nearly 100,000 exilic Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and1990s.  In thrilling adventures, the kind of which books are written and Hollywood movies are made, teams of Mossad agents, IDF members and civilians, with the help of America and other countries, planned, organized, and went deep into hostile nations of Ethiopia and Sudan.  Sudan sent armies in '48 and '73 to fight Israel.  It was in Khartoum following the Six-Day War that the Arab Summit rejected any peace with Israel.  So Mossad had to construct cover stories for its Operations.

Nothing stopped the Israelis or the Jewish Ethiopians.  The forlorn walked across vast deserts to meet Israeli agents, who packed them into the largest airplanes on Earth and transported others aboard camouflaged ships.  They bravely flew miles above and across unsuspecting African countries and waterways sandwiched between enemy Arab countries in their return to Zion.

The stories about Operation Moses are engrossingly told in Mossad Exodus (Geffen Publishing House, 2018).  Former Mossad agent Gad Shimron is an author with boots-on-the-ground experience. The book is hard to put down.  It is gripping.  Shimron writes like any great spy novelist fraught with background, but these are true adventures.  The reader feels the pain and angst of the Ethiopians and the brotherly commitment of the Israelis.  That's why a Hollywood movie based on the book is in production.

The inspiration came from then–newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin.  Begin besought the Mossad Chief, "I ask you to use the Mossad to find a way to bring these dear Jews to Israel. Bring the Ethiopian Jewry to me."

The Jews in Ethiopia suffered from famine, political and religious oppression, and violence and were under the suspicious eyes of neighbors willing to inform authorities.  The Israelis needed a cover story.  The Mossad purchased from Italians and remodeled a bankrupt tourist resort on the sea as cover for the true mission.  They refurbished an abandoned, dusty airstrip.  Both were staging areas to extricate the Ethiopians.  There are eight pages of pictures in the book giving gravitas and color.

There is plenty of gossip Shimron shares.  He talks about interpersonal relationships.  There are swashbuckling characters.  One has courage that borders on insanity.  Field agents resent the big egos of their bosses, whom they find mendacious and petty.  His Khartoum bar description and encounters remind me of Bogart in Casablanca.  "A couple of Hungarian musicians, a pianist, and a violinist, provided musical ambiance in the bar, which boasted the romantic name Sunset."  Then there are the peripatetic international agencies' representatives, charity workers, and Swedish nurses.

The reader learns from Shimron that operations are lurching works in progress despite planning to the smallest detail.  Timing and preparedness build teamwork.  Practice turns behaviors into habits and instinct.

Then there are the unanticipated buggers making the reader bite nails to the quick.  Things turn bad for the most innocuous reasons and nearly scupper the operations:

• Avoid suspicious looking phone activity; it is best to stay in touch with headquarters calling "from the outhouse."

• Sand dust eats away at mechanical devices, causing trucks to break down.

• Food storage and distribution equipment must be upgraded in the field, or famine lurks.

• Threaten the mission to medevac a young girl with a high fever.

• Chase an elderly woman who has run off into the desert, fearful of the noise from the huge airplanes.

• Do not engage when a Sudanese unit fires a SAM missile at a Hercules transport plane and another launches a high-speed chase after the Mossad.

• A foreign aid worker starts talking in Hebrew to the agents and nearly blows their cover.  "I know you are Israelis...only Israelis cut their salad vegetables so thin." 

Shimron movingly writes, "I'm no longer objective about anything pertaining to Ethiopian Jews.  I admire them, their inner calm and the stamina that enabled them to stand up to terrible hardships on their way to freedom.  It is the stamina of heroes.  And their smiles and the sound of laughter of Ethiopian children have a unique sound.  I heard it for the first time in that remote wadi somewhere in eastern Sudan."

About Israel: "Our mission in Sudan was one of the sorts that made the Mossad a legend in the spy world.  What other country would be ready to invest tens of millions of dollars to set up an operational infrastructure for secret activity in an enemy country, involving large army forces, only to save several thousand famished refugees in civil war-torn Africa?"  Only Israel!

Dr. Harold Goldmeier teaches Middle East Politics in Tel Aviv and is a free public speaker to business and community groups.  He was an R&T fellow at Harvard and manages an investment fund.

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