This week in History: Operation Moses begins

Although Ethiopian aliya has taken over 25 years, it pales in comparison to the 40 years its namesake required to lead Exodus from Egypt.

falash mura (photo credit: Ricki Rosen)
falash mura
(photo credit: Ricki Rosen)
On November 21, 1984, a seven-week clandestine operation to bring Falash Mura Ethiopian Jews to Israel began. The unprecedented undertaking, code-named “Operation Moses,” was a three-way collaboration between the Mossad, the CIA and Sudanese State Security (SSS) to smuggle nearly 8,000 Falash Mura out of refugee camps in Sudan in a massive airlift to Israel. Operation Moses turned out to be the beginning of large-scale, official Israeli efforts to facilitate a Falash Mura aliyah that continues to this day.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel ruled that Ethiopian Jews had the right to immigrate to the country under the Law of Return in 1975. A few years later, small-scale efforts had already begun to bring individual and small groups of Falash Mura to Israel. However, these efforts, undertaken through semi-official and sometimes illegal channels quickly became impractical and too difficult to continue. A larger-scale covert operation would be necessary.
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In 1981, significant numbers of Falash Mura, whose Jewish heritage goes back 3,000 years, began an onerous and often deadly trek, joining several hundred thousand of their countrymen who had already fled to Sudan to escape the virulent famine that was plaguing Ethiopia. However, most of those who would eventually be smuggled out of Sudan in Operation Moses did not make the journey until 1983-84. Conditions on the way to Sudan were particularly brutal and an estimated 4,000 of those hoping to make it to Israel died of malnutrition and disease, never finishing the journey they risked everything to embark on.
When reports began arriving in late 1984 that large numbers of Falash Mura were dying from malnutrition in Sudanese refugee camps, the decision to begin Operation Moses was made. The Mossad and the CIA, which already had a presence in Khartoum, began making arrangements with the semi-autonomous SSS agency for a massive airlift operation. In preparation, the Falash Mura were moved to rented houses in the Sudanese town of Gedaref. From there, they were slowly brought to the Khartoum airport where nearly 8,000 were eventually flown to Israel on charter flights on a Belgian airline. On November 21, 1984, the first flight took off from Khartoum – where the SSS had set aside a special runway for the operation – and landed in Israel. Operation Moses had begun.
Over the following seven weeks, more than 30 flights brought approximately 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time to Israel. The flurry of flights ran without a hitch until Friday January 5, 1985, when then-prime minister Shimon Peres publicly confirmed media reports of the covert operation. Immediately following the Israeli acknowledgment, fearing pressure from other Arab bloc countries, the already-weak Sudanese president ordered a halt to the clandestine emigration. It is not known exactly why news of the operation was leaked, but several sources have speculated that an Israeli government official alarmed by the number of Ethiopian Jews arriving was responsible.
What is known is that some 800 Falash Mura were left behind in Sudan. The Israeli government, however, was determined to finish what it had started. Two months later, with the encouragement of Israeli officials, then-US vice president and recently retired CIA director George H.W. Bush planned and executed the second half of Operation Moses, known in Israel as Operation Sheba and in the US as Operation Joseph.
In March 1985, Bush personally flew to Sudan to arrange the second half of the airlift. After managing to convince the Sudanese president to allow the US to complete the final stage of the operation, the CIA scouted and prepared a small airfield in al-Azaza near Gedaref, where the Falash Mura had previously been gathered prior to their departure. Mossad agents – Ethiopian Jews who had made aliyah before Operation Moses – located those Falash Mura who remained in refugee camps and drove them to the remote airfield. The soon-to-be-Israelis were rushed onto several US military C-130 Hercules aircraft, landing at the run-down airstrip in 20 minutes intervals, flying them directly to Israel.
Together, Operations Moses and Sheba brought approximately one third of the Ethiopian Falash Mura to Israel. The consequences of the operation, which some estimates put as costing $300 million, were felt on several continents. In Sudan, news of the government’s cooperation with Israel helped lead to the downfall of the president and his Western-aligned regime. As a result, the United States lost an important ally in east Africa and the Arab world. In Israel, the Jewish state had begun to experience yet another aliya and the ensuing difficulties of absorbing members of a Jewish tradition foreign to most Israelis.
The next wave of Ethiopian emigration would not take place for another six years when Operation Solomon (which brought an additional 14,000 Falash Mura) was finally made possible by regime change in Ethiopia in 1991. Only this past week, in November 2010, the government finally approved plans to bring the nearly 8,000 Falash Mura waiting in Ethiopia to Israel. Although the Ethiopian aliya has taken over 25 years thus far, it pales in comparison to the 40 years its namesake required to lead the Exodus from Egypt.