One of the greatest mass-escapes in history was carried out by the state of Israel. In a daring covert airlift Israel rescued about 18,000 Ethiopian Falashas out of refugee camps in the Sudan and Ethiopia. At the turn of the century, there were several thousand Falashas in Ethiopia, but by the 1980’s their numbers had dwindled to at most 2,500, scattered mainly throughout the country’s remote northwestern Gondor Province. For two centuries, the Falashas had longed for the promised land, but it wasn’t until 1972 that they were officially recognized as Jews by Israel. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef decreed that the Falasha’ were “undoubtedly of the Tribe of Dan” which made them the inhabitants of the biblical land of Havileh, today’s “southern Arabian peninsula.” The Falashas believe in the Torah, the basic Jewish scriptures; they’re circumcised and observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws. Ironically, one of the keys to the rabbinate’s conclusions that the Falashas are indeed Jews was the fact that they do not observe Hanukkah. This festival celebrates the victory of Judah the Maccabee over Antiochus in the 4th in the 167 B.C., after which the temple was cleansed and Jewish worship restored. But this was not part of the Falashas’ history, because they had left Israel with the “Queen of Sheba” long before, during Solomon’s reign. In 1977, when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister of Israel he vowed to help the Falashas. Ethiopian leader Mengitsu Haile Mariam, struggling with a bitter civil war in the early 1970’s, had ordered harsh punishment for any Ethiopian attempting to escape. A plan was drawn up by Israel to sell weapons to Ethiopia and Sudan to rescue the Falashas. After only 122 “black Jews” had been rescued the word got out. Mariam, who had demanded the deal be kept secret, immediately called it off.
In 1979, when Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed the Camp David Agreement, Begin persuaded Sadat to talk to Sudan’s President Jaafar al-Nemery into allowing the Falashas to flow out of refugee camps in Sudan into Israel. Over the next few years, a trickle of Falashas, perhaps as many as 4,000 did make their way to Isreal, although that plan died to when Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and al-Nemery converted to Islamic fundamentalism. By September 1984 Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, met with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington and asked the Americans to use their clout with both the Egyptians and the Saudi Arabians to persuade al-Nemery to allow a rescue operation under cover of the International Food Aid Operation. Sudan, which had its own problems with drought, and with civil war in the south was not unhappy at the prospect of having a few thousand less mouths to feed. But again, both Sudanese and Ethiopian officials demanded absolute secrecy. During the first week of January 1985, George Bush, then U.S. Vice-President, having received al-Nemery’s approval, ordered a U.S. Hercules aircraft into Khartoum, where it picked up 500 Falashas and flew them directly to Israel. The operation ended for a third time when word got out. Once news did break of the covert operation, Arab reaction was swift and predictable. The Sudanese government denied any role in the airlift, and foreign minister Hashem Osman called in Arab, African, and Asian diplomats to accuse Ethiopia of “closing its eyes” to the Falasha exodus in return for money and weapons from Israel. Ethiopian foreign minister Gashu Wolde replied that Sudan had been bribing a large number of Ethiopian Jews to flee Ethiopia. Kuwait’s Alrai al A’am, in a strongly worded editorial said: “The smuggling of Ethiopian Jews across Sudan can be regarded not as a passing event but as a new defeat inflicted on the Arab nation..” At the time of the operation, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared publicly, “We shall not rest until our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia come safely back home”.