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The History of Ethiopian Jews

Ethiopian refugees exiting plane Operations Moses and Solomon

In secret operations beginning in 1980, Israeli operatives were able to smuggle hundreds of Ethiopian Jews through Kenya to Israel. By the end of 1982 there were 2,500 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel and throughout 1983, 1,800 left Sudan over land. Recognizing the need to move more quickly, the Israelis began to use a nearby air strip to land Hercules transport planes which could each bring out 200 immigrants per flight. Utilizing a variety of routes, a total of 8,000 Jews had reached Israel by late 1984.

However, it was clear that the large numbers of Jews crossing into Sudan exacerbated the already horrific conditions in the camps. On November 21, Operation Moses began. Refugees were bused out of the refugee camps to a military airport near Khartoum where they were flown directly to Israel under a blanket of complete secrecy.

When news leaks ended the operation in January 1985, 8,000 Jews had been brought to Israel, leaving behind about 1,000 Jews in Sudan and thousands more in Ethiopia. Initiated by Vice President Bush, a CIA sponsored follow-up mission called Operation Joshua brought an additional 800 Jews from Sudan to Israel.

Operation Moses separated many from their loved ones and more than 1,600 "orphans of circumstances" separated from their families began new lives in Jewish Agency Youth Aliyah villages, learning Hebrew and becoming acculturated not knowing the fate of their parents, brothers, sisters and loved ones. Others took the first difficult steps in Agency absorption centers where they learned to live in a modern society.

The Fulfillment of a Dream

The grim prospect of thousands of Jewish children growing up in Israel, separated from their parents almost became a reality. Nothing could be done to persuade the Ethiopian governor to increase the trickle of Jews leaving Ethiopia in the years between Operations Joshua and Solomon. But, in 1990 the governments of Israel and Ethiopia reached an agreement allowing family reunification, which was gradually broadened to allow others to leave for Israel.

As the news spread that Jews were able to leave, thousands left their homes in Gondar and made their way to Addis Ababa. At the time of renewal of relations between the two countries there were 2,500 Jew in Addis. They were cared for by American organizations such as the JDC and prepared for Aliyah by the Jewish Agency. A school was set up for the children which eventually served as many as 5,000 students. Family heads were offered work and each family was given a monthly subsidy for living expenses. Medical facilities were established.

It became clear that the Ethiopian government had decided to limit aliyah to 1,000 per month. Quotas were determined according to time spent in Addis, in Sudan, the sick, the elderly, religious leaders etc.

By the end of 1990, the economic and political situation in Ethiopia had deteriorated with struggles between rebels and government intensifying daily. Aliyah and aid workers were concerned with the dangers of the transition period if the rebels gained ground. Representatives of the Jewish Agency, JDC, ministries of the government of Israel and the IDF began secret preparations for an emergency airlift and absorption of more than 14,000 Jews.

JDC took responsibility to institute an emergency call-up system, JAFI to organize the collection points and transfer to temporary housing in Israel. The Israel airforce and army would provide logistical support and El Al would also supply staff and airplanes.

In late May, as insurgents closed in on Addis, the plan was put into action. There were very special passengers on the first plane to leave Israel en route to Ethiopia on Friday, May 30, 1991 - 50 veteran Ethiopian immigrants mobilized to help bring their brothers and sisters home. The last plane to leave 36 hours later, an IDF 707 bore the organizers and workers of the operation.

Although the operation was kept secret, rumors of the arrival of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia spread by word of mouth. Thousands of Israelis flocked to the temporary absorption centers set up in hotels and hostels to welcome the newcomers, witnessing the joy of reunion between long separated family members.