When Israel Rescues Jews: Operations Moses & Yachin
Since its founding, Jews of all stripes have immigrated to Israel. The most common reasons include a feeling of belonging, religious imperatives, joining family members, fleeing tyranny, conflict, and economic hardship, or escaping antisemitism.
Nearly 38 years ago, on November 21, 1984, Operation Moses began — a mission that successfully brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews in need to Israel. Also noteworthy is Operation Yachin, which began on November 28, 1961, and brought Jews from Morocco to the Jewish state.
Ethiopian Jews have a long and deep-rooted connection to the Holy Land. Historians believe that Jews emigrated from ancient Israel to Ethiopia between the 1st and 6th centuries. They were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries, but secretly maintained their Jewish traditions. They have long prayed to return to Israel.
A famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s threatened the survival of the local Jewish community. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews traveled through the desert to Sudan with the dream of being airlifted to Israel from refugee camps. The journey for many meant starvation, dehydration, and attacks by militias. More than 4,000 Ethiopians died along the way and in refugee camps.
In response, the IDF, US Embassy in Khartoum, and Sudanese state officials organized Operation Moses to help Ethiopian refugees get to Israel. Named after the Biblical leader, the refugee operation was carefully planned in order to avoid suspicion by airport authorities. Such secrecy was required, that the Ethiopian migrants were flown out of Sudan using Trans European Airways, which frequently carried pilgrims heading to Mecca.
That secrecy was shattered when Israel’s Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, spoke about Operation Moses at a press conference in January 1985, despite its confidential nature. In response, Sudan immediately halted the airlifts, to avoid upsetting their Arab allies. As a result, over 1,000 “orphans of circumstance” who had arrived in Israel were separated from families that had remained in Africa. This situation was finally rectified when Operation Solomon brought an additional 14,324 Jews to Israel in 1991, at a cost to Israel of $26 million.
Despite Sudan’s public outrage, it was subsequently revealed that the country’s secret police and members of its Muslim community had actually helped facilitate Operation Moses immensely.
Between November 1984 and January 1985, over 8,000 Jews on some 30 flights made it to the Jewish state. Prior to Operation Moses, only about 250 Ethiopian Jews were living in Israel. Today, the community numbers approximately 140,000.
Several Ethiopian Jews have become key contributors to Israeli society. For example, Beylanesh Zevadia immigrated to Israel when she was 17. She made her way back, as the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia in 2012; Avraham Yitzhak was the IDF’s first colonel of Ethiopian descent in 2016; and Yityish Aynaw was the first Ethiopian to be crowned Miss Israel in 2013.
Operation Yachin began on November 28, 1961. The massacre of 44 Jews in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda and Jerada in 1948 acted as the catalyst for the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Meanwhile, the Sultan of Morocco, Mohammed V, issued a public statement warning against demonstrating “solidarity with the Zionist aggression.”
Local Jews initially feared that if Morocco gained independence from colonial French rule, persecution would ensue. Morocco did gain independence in 1956, and Jews were actually granted full rights and status. However, the community remained extremely apprehensive and many Jews fled the country.
Jewish emigration from Morocco was officially prohibited between 1948-1956, as a result of Arab League pressure on the government in Rabat. Nonetheless, 110,000 out of the 250,000 Jews who lived in Morocco left. The formal ban on emigration ended in February 1961 with the accession of King Hassan II. However, it continued to be strongly discouraged, and emigration aid from foreign bodies remained forbidden.
On November 28 1961, the Mossad decided to become more involved in efforts to bring Jews to Israel. With the new leadership of King Hassan II, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion negotiated terms by which Morocco would allow Jews to immigrate.
They decided upon a $500,000 down payment, $100 per emigrant for the first 500,000 Moroccan Jews, and $250 per emigrant thereafter. The New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society gave $50 million to the effort.
Operation Yachin successfully transported 97,000 Jews on planes and ships from Casablanca and Tangier, via France and Italy. While most people moved to Israel, some decided to move to Canada, France, or the United States of America.
At its core, Israel is a country of immigrants. While the Ethiopian and Moroccan communities have faced their own challenges, many others have come to Israel for a diverse array of reasons. The story of aliyah over the last 300 years, in addition to those Jews who never left Israel, is the reason for the wide spectrum of cultures and traditions that make Israeli society utterly unique.
And with millions of Jews living in countries throughout the world, aliyah continues.