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It Happened in May: Falasha to Israel

May 1991: Jews from Ehtiopia Face Discrimination on Arrival in Israel

By Donald Neff, Washington Report, May/June 1996


It was five years ago, on May 25, 1991, that Israel airlifted the last 15,000 Jews from embattled Ethiopia and flew them to Israel in a daring emergency operation. The action, called Operation Solomon, lasted 36 hours and involved 35 cargo planes flying the 1,500-mile route to Israel with the black Jews, called Falashas in Hebrew.1 The rescue operation came as rebel forces were closing in on the capital of Addis Ababa amid frantic diplomatic efforts by Israel and the United States to have the tottering government grant permission for the Jews to leave. In the end, a $35 million bribe by Israel and direct pleas to Ethiopia by President George Bush secured their release.2

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was on hand in Israel to greet the first of the arrivals in 1984, saying: “It’s a great moment for all our people, all our country, for Jewish people all over the world. Now they are here and they are Israeli citizens, so no one will persecute them anymore.”3 Eleven years later the Falasha community rioted, charging that Israel systematically discriminated against them because they were black.

The odyssey of the Falashas is a tale of daring and social inequity in present-day Israel. It began in the mid-1980s and was not completed for six years.

An ancient tribe, the Falashas kept their Jewish faith over the millennia in isolation in Ethiopia. Their long history and unique form of Judaism gripped the imagination of some Israelis, casting the Falashas in a romantic and even mythic aura. Ethiopia had long served as a way station for covert Israeli activities in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, its location was important to Israel because of Ethiopia’s strategic position on the Horn of Africa at the narrow entrance to the Red Sea at Bab el Mandeb. Activities in Ethiopia were frequently coordinated between the United States and Israel. In addition, Israeli foreign policy for a time saw Ethiopia as a counterbalance on the African continent to Egypt.4 Because of these strategic interests, Israeli officials traveled regularly to Ethiopia, where they became acquainted with the Falashas and their sufferings. Out of these meetings grew the ambitious idea to bring the entire impoverished community of around 30,000 to Israel. Adding urgency to the plan was the fact that by the 1980s Ethiopia was being torn apart by the Tigre rebellion. Thousands of Falashas were already refugees on the Sudanese border.

The original grandiose enterprise was appropriately named Operation Moses. Begun in deep secrecy in November 1984, it lasted only to the first week of 1985 when an official of the Jewish Agency carelessly referred to it at a public meeting, much to the embarrassment of the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan. Both governments were so weak that to be seen as favoring one ethnic group over another was a threat to their hold on power. The flights were halted immediately.

"A lot of Israelis don't really identify with these people."

About 10,000 Ethiopian Jews had been transported to Israel. But there were still some 20,000 left in Ethiopia and Sudan. Israel called on the United States for help. Under the personal intervention of Vice President George Bush, 1,000 stragglers were allowed by Sudan to be picked up by six U.S. military planes on March 28, 1985. With that, Operation Moses ended, at best only a partial success.5 It was not until the late 1980s that the Jewish state managed to reopen the pipeline for immigrant Falashas. Marxist President Mengistu Haile Mariam agreed to allow the legal emigration of the Falashas at the rate of 500 per month in exchange for weapons to fight the Tigran rebels. The emigration continued from 1989 until the early summer of 1990, when the flow suddenly stopped. Mengistu demanded that Israel provide Ethiopia with more weapons, including cluster bomb units. Israel agreed.6

The deadly bombs took a devastating toll among Tigran and other rebel groups, causing an international uproar and again bringing attention to the Falashas and Israel. Congressional aide Steve Morrison prepared a study of the situation for Democrat Rep. Howard Wolpe of Michigan, noting that there was “a certain cynical logic that underlies the tradeoff between Israeli military assistance—likely to contribute to the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians—and the humanitarian interests of Ethiopian Jews. Apart from the question of whether this exchange is truly in the best interests of Ethiopian Jews, one must ask: how many Ethiopian lives can be justified for the sake of an Ethiopian Jew having the opportunity to reunify with his family in Israel? Is this implicitly racist?”7

The flow of Falashas to Israel resumed in July 1990, shortly before the State Department finally agreed to Israel’s repeated request for it to hold a high-level meeting with Ethiopia. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tesfaye Dinka met with Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for an hour July 27. A U.S. spokesman said the “emigration issue was discussed very forcefully.”8

By Nov. 1, the Ethiopian government announced that all of the estimated 15,000 remaining Falashas were free to depart. The announcement came after Secretary of State James Baker and Israeli officials warned that relations between the U.S. and Ethiopia would not improve until the Jews were allowed to leave.9 By this time, however, Tigran rebels were on the march. President Mengistu’s position was crumbling under the pressure of the rebel forces advancing on Addis Ababa. On May 21, 1991, Mengistu fled the country, finally opening the way for the mass exodus. Mengistu’s successor, acting President Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, said he was “ready to make a deal,” which included the payment of $35 million by Israel.10 What the United States may have secretly given is unknown.

Trouble in Paradise

The effort that had begun in 1984 was finally completed in mid-1991. Nearly the entire Falasha community of Ethiopia now had a new home in Israel. But there was trouble in paradise. While from a distance many Israelis regarded the Falashas as a romanticized ancient tribe, up close they seemed to see only the color of their skin. Discrimination against the black Jews became widespread, tainting even government policies toward the new immigrants. They were settled in isolated “development towns” in the Negev desert and Galilee, and soon became afflicted by unemployment, drug problems and crime. One American Jewish activist in Israel noted: “The fact is that there is a color problem, in the sense that a lot of Israelis don’t really identify with these people.”11

A 1995 government education study reported that many Ethiopian elementary schoolchildren were needlessly channeled into classes for the learning-disabled, and teenage Ethiopians were largely schooled in subjects that prepared them for Israel’s least rewarding jobs. A majority of the Ethiopians remained housed in the grim trailer parks in the distant development towns, where some of them had been living since the mid-1980s. Moreover, their religious leaders still were not recognized by Israel’s government-sponsored rabbinate, implying that theirs was a less pure form of Judaism than that of other Israelis.12

Pent-up resentment in the Falasha community finally erupted in fury on Jan. 24, 1996, when it was learned that Falasha donations to Israel’s national blood bank were routinely thrown away. They were not pacified by the excuse given. Zvi Ben Yishai, chairman of the National AIDS Committee, said it was because the Falashas had fifty times the incidence of AIDS as other Israelis. He said the practice was “justified for the protection of the public.”

However, Yoram Lass, a member of parliament and former director general of the health ministry, described the policy as “racist and unfounded scientifically.” He said Americans had a much higher AIDS rate but Israel would never consider banning blood donations by American Jews.

The revelation horrified the Falashas, who now number around 50,000. Adiso Masala, head of the Organization of Ethiopian Immigrants, said: “This is pure racism. We are blood brothers with the Israelis but our blood is thrown in the garbage because we are black.” Benny Mekonnen, 30, a reserve army major, said he was so mad that he was going to leave Israel: “I gave blood every year, once a year. They took our blood and threw it in the garbage...I am very, very angry.”13

On Jan. 28, some 10,000 Falashas protested at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem and were brutally met by riot police who used batons, rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas against them. The Falashas carried placards reading “Apartheid in Israel” and “Our blood is as red as yours and we are just as Jewish as you are.”14 Prime Minister Shimon Peres promised to investigate their complaints. But on the basis of their experience during more than a decade in Israel, the Falashas seem doomed to a fate of suffering the same isolation in Israel that they fled in Ethiopia.


Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, The Israeli Connection, New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.

*Ostrovsky, Victor and ClaireHoy, By Way of Deception, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Raviv, Dan and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community , Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.


1 Joel Brinkley, New York Times, 5/26/91.

2 Jackson Diehl, Washington Post, 5/25/91.

3 Ibid.

4 A survey of relations between Israel and Ethiopia is in Beit-Hallahmi, The Israeli Connection, pp. 50-54.

5 Raviv and Melman, Every Spy a Prince, pp. 236-44; Ostrovsky and Hoy, By Way of Deception, pp. 287-301.

6 On Israel’s supply of cluster bombs, see Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, 1/21/90. For a fuller discussion of Israel’s actions and motives, see Rachelle Marshall, “Israel Arms Ethiopia,”Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. VIII, No. 11, March 1990.

7 The Economist, 7/21/90, and Israel Foreign Affairs, Vol. VI, No. 7, July 1990.

8 Nora Boustany, Washington Post , 7/28/90.

9 Clifford Kraus, New York Times, 11/2/90.

10 Jackson Diehl, Washington Post, 5/25/91.

11 Jackson Diehl, Washington Post, 5/27/91. For more on the difficulties experienced by the earlier arrivals, see Henry Kamm, New York Times, 3/30/86.

12 Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 1/25/96.

13 Ibid.

14 Serge Schmemann, New York Times, 1/29/96.

*Available from the AET Book Club.


(c) Copyright 1995-1999, American Educational Trust. All Rights Reserved.

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