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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
As the first groups of Ethiopians "smuggled" into Israel during Operation Solomon began to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport at around 4:45 p.m. Friday, May 24, 1991 the Jewish world and the world at large watched with baited breath as thousands of Third-World Jews descended from the aircraft. For nearly all of the 14,000 Ethiopians, it was the first time they had ever set foot on a plane.
What most Israelis did not know then was that their government, together with the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Agency, had been working against the clock to get all the Ethiopian Jews out of the country before Ethiopia's repressive dictator, Haile Mengistu Mariam, changed his mind.
Never before had Israel seen a community aliya of this scale. Seven years earlier, the entire six weeks of Operation Moses had brought far fewer. Upon arrival, the new immigrants - who numbered too many to be housed in the usual absorption centers - were given shelter in numerous hotels throughout the country.
As a participant on FZY-Young Judea year course 1990-91, Operation Solomon was to become a very special part of my own personal history. A few days after it was complete, the more than 100 students on my program gathered in Jerusalem for our year-end evaluation. Ten of us were chosen to spend a morning playing with some of the children from Operation Solomon at the Windmill Hotel in Jerusalem.
Visiting those children was an amazing experience: one that capped off what had been an extremely eventful year for Israel and a significant one for me. We had started our year in Israel with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and with the looming threat of the first Gulf War hanging over our heads, we had built sealed rooms, learnt how to put on gas masks and now we would be eternally linked to another dramatic chapter of Israeli history - the massive airlift of Ethiopian Jewry.
The hotel had been completely converted; it no longer resembled the easy vacation spot it had been a few days earlier. The culture shock was ours as we were introduced to throngs of Ethiopians dressed in their traditional white shammas (toga-like garments) who were milling about the small lobby. I remember feeling as though I had discovered an ancient African village in the midst of downtown Jerusalem.
What hit me most was that many of the young women we met there who were our age or a little younger were already mothers themselves, running around after oblivious little kids dressed in ill-fitting western clothes. One mother, dressed in her traditional garments with a colorful African print headscarf, was only 14. She let me hold her baby, and that was probably the first time in my life I'd ever held an infant.
The Jewish Agency officials who were working with the immigrants and helping them get used to the modern conveniences we take for granted ushered us downstairs into what had been the hotel's dinning room. For the next few weeks it was to serve as a makeshift classroom or playroom for the children.
They were all grouped together regardless of age and we were told to get them organized. A few of us set up arts and crafts and showed them how to use the paints and draw. Two of the year course participants had brought their guitars and they sat down in the center of the room and started playing. Immediately a crowd gathered around them and began clapping. The children were overjoyed.
When one of the year coursers took out his camera, the children looked it over in wonderment. For some, it was the first time they'd ever seen such a contraption. He let them take some pictures.
These immigrants seemed so primitive, so out of context of what was around them. Now, 15 years later, as we talk about how slowly their "absorption" has progressed, thinking back to how they started out their lives in Israel and where they came from, I'd say that great strides have been made.