My Word: A rescue story beyond black and white prisms

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with war and famine plaguing Ethiopia and the Jews there increasingly subjected to antisemitism, members of the community risked hazardous treks across the desert.

July 25, 2019 21:42
AN ETHIOPIAN-ISRAELI spiritual leader participates in the main Sigd holiday prayer gathering at the

AN ETHIOPIAN-ISRAELI spiritual leader participates in the main Sigd holiday prayer gathering at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade in Jerusalem last November.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

I don’t know if this column should have a trigger warning for readers or a minefield warning for me. But here goes. Netflix this week released a trailer promoting the movie Red Sea Diving Resort, which will be available from July 31. I’m looking forward to the film, which tells the until now largely ignored story of an early stage of Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews.

The thriller is based on events that are about as Israeli as they come: a combination of chutzpah, daring and good luck (or Divine Providence.) The movie by Israeli screenwriter-director Gideon Raff (best known for Homeland) deals with an audacious escapade even by the Mossad’s standards.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with war and famine plaguing Ethiopia and the Jews there increasingly subjected to antisemitism, many members of the community risked long, hazardous treks across the desert, ending up in ad hoc refugee camps in neighboring Sudan. Thousands of Jews perished on the way. When he learned of their plight, prime minister Menachem Begin ordered the Israeli intelligence agency to find a way to bring the persecuted Ethiopian Jews home to safety.

Operation Brothers (Mivtzah Ahim) was incredible in both senses of the word. Originally, the Mossad sought possible harbors on the Red Sea from where the navy could pick up the refugees. This is where the fortuitous part comes in. Scouting for possible sites, they discovered an abandoned diving school, deserted because its former Italian owners realized its isolated location would make it unsustainable.

The Mossad needed a place where it could operate in a hostile Muslim country and it needed a cover story. So here, with a weak plan but strong nerves, Mossad agents set up a fully functioning diving resort. They hosted European and other tourists by day and mounted regular rescue operations of Ethiopian Jews by night, with the help of courageous community leaders like the late Ferede Yazezow Aklum.

Former Mossad agent Gad Shimron wrote about Operation Brothers in a book first published in Hebrew in 1998 and published in English by Gefen Publishing House in 2007 under the title Mossad Exodus; the Daring Undercover Rescue of the Lost Jewish Tribe. Shimron noted that the few local staff members had no idea what their European bosses were up to. They didn’t even know their real nationality.

Arous Village was such a success as a tourist site that visitors came from around the world. In 1985, the Israelis were forced to abandon the resort after a regime change left Sudan in the hands of a leader intent on flushing out Mossad agents, real and imaginary. They left quietly overnight, leaving bewildered guests and staff to wonder the next day what had happened. By then, some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews had been spirited to safety, some by boat and others, later, by airlift.

Publicity wise, Operation Brothers was the neglected step-sibling to the later mass airlifts Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. Although former Mossad agents who took part in the operation admit that they were able to have a good time at the resort, it was anything but relaxing and several times they came close to being caught or killed. Nobody was under any illusion as to what their fate would have been had they been captured. While the Israeli general public has what I call an Entebbe Complex – convinced that no matter where they are, Israel will somehow be able to come to the rescue in their hour of need – Mossad operatives and others who have worked on missions in hostile lands are ever-conscious of the Eli Cohen story. It is not always possible to save an agent from being hanged. There is not always a happy ending.

RED SEA Diving Resort stars Ben Kingsley, Chris Evans, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michiel Huisman and Alona Tal. I am curious to see the movie – and to see international response to it. I got a small taste of the latter this week when a friend posted on Facebook about the Netflix debut, along with a picture from the trailer featuring Evans and Huisman.
I was not prepared for the comments.

“Why are there two white/European dudes in the foreground?” read the first comment. “Can’t this story be told through Ethiopian eyes? In reality were there really any non-Ethiopian guys hanging around helping people through these harrowing journeys of escape?”

“Good point... Tone deaf to have two white dudes... advertising a movie about black people. They could have chosen an image of something other than two white Mossad agents to better appeal to American audiences,” added someone else.

“Is this a show about Jews from Ethiopia who brave a terrible trek, whose devotion and courage bring them to Israel, with the help of some white dudes; or is this a show about some superstar white dudes who save some poor, lost black folks and bring them to another country?” commented another.

By this point, I had stopped rolling my eyes and started hitting my forehead with my palm instead. Figuratively, I was bashing my head against a wall – a politically correct wall, opaque and unbreakable.

Not only did I feel people were missing the point, it felt like we were communicating in two different languages.

Red Sea Diving Resort is not about “superstar white dudes” who save “some poor, lost black folk and bring them to another country.” It’s about super Mossad agents bringing some 7,000 black Jews home to Israel – at great risk. It’s probably the only sophisticated mass rescue ever of Africans from Africa. It’s the exact opposite of America’s history of transporting Africans from one continent to another. This is about freedom, not slavery; Jewish unity not black and white divisions.

“The Ethiopian Jews are the real heroes of the story,” Shimron said on an interview on KAN 11 this week. This is part of their story, a part that should not be overlooked because a certain sector of American audiences insists on defining everything by color and race.

IN ISRAEL, the recent riots and protests by members of the Ethiopian Jewish community show that the absorption process was not without fault (the absorption of immigrants from Yemen and the former Soviet Union was not all smooth, either), but we should not start adopting American identity politics in the context of the Israeli situation.

Americanizing the complaints of the Ethiopian Jewish community will do nothing to solve the problems. On the contrary. It’s more likely to increase divides and tensions, despite the fact that Israeli society as an overwhelming whole – not just Ethiopian immigrants and their Sabra offspring – strives for full integration. And the obsession of categorizing all non-Ethiopian Jews as “white” is particularly absurd.

Journalist and researcher Shmuel Rosner wrote a piece in the Jewish Journal earlier this month titled, “Don’t Americanize Israel’s Ethiopian Riots.” Rosner noted that despite the understandable tendency in the US to see the riots in Israel and America as the same thing, they are not.

“And the reason why begins with two very different histories of two black communities. Africans were shipped to America as slaves. Ethiopian Israelis were brought by their own country to play their part in the great Zionist saga of gathering Israel’s tribes. Moreover, African Americans had to fight for equality. Ethiopian equality, at least the principle of it, was a given. And yes, mistakes were made. And yes, there are clearly some issues that are not yet resolved. And yet, Israel invested resources in helping the newcomers more than in any other community… There are also successes. Many successes…

“Alas, what they see are not yesterday’s achievements. What they see are today’s failures,” Rosner wrote.

The movie Red Sea Diving Resort is about a major achievement. The publicity material proclaims: “Inspired by real events.” Real events inspire me, too. And they go beyond seeing the world in terms of black and white. When I watch the film, I hope to see it in glorious color.

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