An Act of Mercy in a Merciless World
Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews
by Stephen Spector. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,
“To the Promised Land in Stages” was the title of a film review written by my friend Leonard Quart and me. It appeared in the June/July 1985 issue of Midstream. We wrote about Operation Moses, an airlift of almost 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel between November 18, 1984, and January 5, 1985. We described it as “an act of mercy in a merciless world.” Operation Solomon, which took place over six years later, on May 24 and 25, 1991, flew 14,310 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 34 hours and 4 minutes. In addition to being an act of mercy, it was an act of courage in a dangerous world, an act of generosity in a selfish world, and an act of diplomacy in a belligerent world.
The term “Ethiopian Jews” was invented by Americans working to help the Beta Israel and adopted in the 1970s by the Beta Israel themselves. (p. 6) “Beta Israel” means “House of Israel” in Amharic, a Semitic language that is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia. Non-Jews in Ethiopia called the Beta Israel “Falashas,” Amharic for “landless people” or “strangers.” Ethiopian Jews, as we now call them, were tenant farmers in northern Ethiopia. The men were often smiths; the women, often potters. There were some Ethiopian Christians who believed that “the smiths were the direct descendants of the Jews who forged the nails used to crucify Jesus.” (p. 5) People who work with fire, as smiths and potters do, are viewed as having supernatural powers by some Ethiopians. In Ethiopia, as in so many other parts of the world, Jews were seen as mysteriously powerful and therefore dangerous.
Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, viewed the Jews or at least, Israel as powerful. In fact, he tried to use the Ethiopian Jews as a tool to get military aid from Israel. His up-and-down relationship with the Israeli government is part of the extremely complicated story of the rescue of the Beta Israel. His dictatorial policies are a different part of the story. He introduced a policy called “villagization,” which involved the resettlement of 800,000 farmers to remote areas of the country. There had already been drought and famine in the country, and Mengistu’s actions made things a great deal worse. Mengistu reminds us of Chairman Mao, whose actions during the Great Leap Forward caused the greatest famine in human history. There was a rebellion in the north, where the Jews lived, and starvation everywhere. The misery caused by Mengistu, together with his need to negotiate with Israel, at first for arms and later for assistance in escaping from his country when his government fell, form part of the story of Operation Solomon.
An American woman named Susan Pollack was serving as the resident director for the AAEJ (American Association for Ethiopian Jews). In February 1989 she reported to the AAEJ that the Jews were in a desperate situation, suffering from “polio, tuberculosis, malaria, skin fungi, goiters, skin ulcers, and infected wounds.” (p. 29) She persuaded the AAEJ to finance the transportation of the Ethiopian Jews to the capital, Addis Ababa, where they would wait to be flown to Israel. Stephen Spector, in the epilogue to this book, is not quite sure that Pollack did the right thing. By moving thousands of Jews from danger and hardship in the north, Susan Pollack and the AAEJ “exposed them to the degradation and perils of existence in Addis Ababa.” (p. 194)
The Jews were delighted to leave their villages and set out for Addis Ababa, the first step on the way to Jerusalem. In May 1990, hundreds of Jews arrived each week. Then they waited, in some cases as long as a year, while the governments of Israel, Ethiopia, and the world wrangled over whether they would be allowed to leave. Villagers who had lived in a primitive, repressive society and had never seen a city were thrust into a new and awful situation. Spector writes, “Fathers who had always supported their families were reduced to dependency on monthly stipends. Most had never managed cash before, and many spent the money on liquor and prostitutes.” (p.74) Some of the prostitutes carried the HIV virus, and AIDS began to spread through the community. By March 1991, “2 percent of the Ethiopian Jews who had reached Israel were HIV-positive.” (p. 95) Israel could have tested them for HIV before they left and kept out those who tested positive, but the Israelis decided not to do so. It is very much to Israel’s credit that the threat of AIDS did not in any way interfere with Israel’s commitment to save the Jewish refugees who were stranded in Addis Ababa.
Mengistu and his government were in trouble. The revolutionaries were advancing, and the Soviet Union was no longer interested in helping him. His representative, Kassa Kebede, bargained with the Israelis for arms.and money. Kassa knew how to bargain, and the Israelis were willing to pay. But the world is a complicated place. The United States was worried that Israel would deliver cluster bombs to Mengistu (p. 71) Ethiopia stopped the emigration of Jews in March 1991 in order to pressure Israel. Kassa, who was not Jewish, saw the end of the Mengistu regime coming and applied for Israeli visas for his wife and daughter. When the end of the Mengistu regime came, Kassa himself was flown to Israel. He eventually moved to Maryland.
Former United States Senator Rudy Boschwitz was appointed as the envoy of President George H. W. Bush to help arrange the exodus of the Beta Israel. After visiting Ethiopia, Boschwitz went to Khartoum and met with Meles Zenawi, the leader of a revolutionary force fighting against Mengistu. Meles wanted to have good relations with the United States and agreed to cooperate with the exodus of the Jews. (p. 119) Israel agreed to pay $35 million into a bank account as compensation to the Ethiopian government for the money it wouldn’t earn from the air fares of the Jews to Israel, since Israel would be in charge of the airlift. Mengistu would be allowed to escape to Zimbabwe, which he did on May 20, 1991.
The airlift itself, Operation Solomon, faced problem after problem. There were countless questions about account numbers for the deposit of the $35 million. There were threats that the airlift would be canceled. There was the danger that if the Jews weren’t gone when the rebels came into Addis Ababa, there would be a massacre. The money was eventually deposited successfully. There are still questions about who got it. Meles, the new leader of Ethiopia, said he would not use it because it was blood money, but his government drew on the funds over time (pp. 186-88)
I have only one reservation about this book: the two chapters devoted to a woman named Chomanesh. In his preface, Spector tells us, “To protect the witnesses’ identities and to offer a fuller sense of many Ethiopians’ experiences in these events, these characters are composites.” (p. xv) In an exciting, moving, and well-documented history, there is no need to add novelistic chapters. Chomanesh should have been left out since she wasn’t needed to make the story more interesting. Operation Solomon is a remarkably informative book about a tense and very complicated rescue. It is evidence of Israel’s enormous diplomatic and financial efforts to help people in need evidence of Israel’s goodness and greatness. Reading it is both an educational and an emotional experience.
This review appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Midstream.