A Modern-Day Jewish Exodus Story
A new Netflix movie, The Red Sea Diving Resort, has been released. It tells the story of an audacious Mossad operation to rescue Ethiopian Jews some 40 years ago.
In the early and mid-1980s, I saw up close some of the remarkable Israeli efforts, supported by the United States government and a few American Jewish groups, on behalf of Ethiopian Jews.
It’s one of the most powerful and uplifting stories in modern Jewish history, yet, like the successful campaign to save Soviet Jews, it is little known in today’s world and barely referenced in Jewish institutions.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why. These were modern-day exoduses on an epic scale and against all the odds.
In the case of Ethiopian Jews, it involved a community believed to date back to the era of King Solomon — that is, nearly 3,000 years ago.
For most of that time, these Jews thought they were alone in the world as they prayed daily to Jerusalem. They were often treated harshly by their Christian and Muslim neighbors in Ethiopia, yet they persevered, secure in their faith and, largely via oral tradition, determined to pass along a proud identity to their children.
They lived in isolated regions, mostly in Gondar Province. As I witnessed, their villages were poor, mostly without access to electricity, with huts built of dung, twigs, and mud, and with no public transportation.
But in the late 1970s and 1980s, something historic began to happen. Israel had become fully aware of the Ethiopian community, and, via a few brave Ethiopian Jews who had earlier made their way to Israel, understood that a mass emigration was possible.
Yet how could it be pulled off? Ethiopia was run by a thuggish Marxist regime, led by Colonel Mengistu, and allied with the Soviet Union. Mengistu had no interest in letting the Jews go simply because they wanted to leave.
Furthermore, the closest neighboring country to Gondar Province was Sudan, which was overwhelmingly Muslim and becoming increasingly radical after the fall of a relatively moderate regime that was one of only two Arab nations to back Egypt’s 1979 peace deal with Israel.
In this seemingly impossible situation, Ethiopian Jews began to go on foot to Sudan, trying to blend into the larger refugee movement fleeing oppression and famine, and hiding their Jewishness and desire to reach Israel.
Along the way, thousands perished. The trek was unimaginably hard, the routes incredibly dangerous, and the challenges for the elderly, the infirm, and the very young especially daunting. And still, they were determined to reach their Promised Land.
One aspect of the massive rescue operation to bring these Ethiopian Jews to Israel was largely kept under wraps all these years, until a major story appeared in the press recently, followed by the Netflix production.
The film has the nail-biting feel of Argo, the fast-paced account of the CIA operation, with Canadian help, to rescue six American diplomats in hiding in Tehran after the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Iran’s capital.
As breathtaking as that effort was, the plan to move thousands of Ethiopian Jews across Sudan to a Mossad-run “diving resort” on the Red Sea, and then transport them to Israel, over a span of years, was of a totally different magnitude.
Yes, the film has some of those seemingly inevitable — and avoidable — Hollywood embellishments, as if a real-life thriller can’t stand on its own two feet. But the core story it tells is true, gripping, and moving.
What comes through loud and clear is the lengths to which Israel went, and the risks it took, to save Jews.
If anyone seeks to understand the real meaning of Israel, here it is. Unlike the Holocaust, when there was no Israel, no Mossad, and no IDF to come to the aid of trapped Jews, there was an Israel, a Mossad, and an IDF for thousands of Ethiopian Jews.
And if anyone seeks to understand the real meaning of faith, here it is as well. Those Ethiopian Jews stayed true to their beliefs for nearly three millennia, never wavering, never doubting that one day they would see Jerusalem. Now they have.
Of course, once in Israel, the process of integration can be long and arduous, just as is the case with any newcomers who travel vast geographic and cultural differences to settle in a new country. It takes a generation or even two, and is not always a smooth and linear journey. Recent Ethiopian social protests underscore the point.
But anyone who saw Ethiopian Jews in their impoverished villages in Gondar Province, and now sees a growing number of Ethiopian Jews in universities, in the diplomatic corps, in the IDF as officers, and in other spheres of Israeli life, can’t help but marvel at a story of literally biblical dimensions that happened in our era.
As one African-American leader said at the height of the rescue: “This is the first time that Africans have been taken out of Africa for freedom and not for slavery.”
How true — and how inspiring that it was Israel that did it!
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Follow him on Twitter @DavidHarrisAJC.