During Passover we tell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, but it’s not the only story which includes the theme of slavery to freedom in the Jewish History. At this time of year, we are reminded of three operations lead by the IAF to grant freedom to Ethiopian Jews
A thousand years after the Jewish people escaped from Egypt, with the help of advanced technologies and a bit more than a swish of rod toward the sea, a similar event occurred for the thousands of Jews who were rescued from Ethiopia and brought to the promised land of Israel. The 20th century version of the story of slavery to freedom.
On November 22nd, 1984, an aerial operation began in order to free ‘Beta Israel’ Jews who resided in refugee camps in Sudan. Years before the operation, thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked for miles in order to reach the Sudanese border. Those who completed the long journey arrived at temporary camps, where they waited until they could be transported to Israel on navy ships along with Israeli airplanes. Unfortunately, many didn’t make it through the difficult journey. 4000 Jews were tragically killed on their way to the dream due to thirst, hunger plagues and violent attacks of road robbers. The Israeli Government decided to pick up the pace of the ‘Aliyot’, and began a special operation called ‘Operation Moses’, appropriately named after the legendary prophet who led the Jewish people toward the Promised Land. During the operation, around eight thousand Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel with the help of IAF planes. The details of the operations weren’t released to the public but were later leaked to the press, thus changing the face of the local politic map. President of Sudan, Jahar Numiri, who ignored the fleeing of the Jews, announced that Ethiopian Jews are allowed to leave the country, just not to the State of Israel.
Winds of Hope blew in from a new direction: Vice President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, indicated that Americans will help in the transport of Jews left in fugitive camps, without the intervention of Israel. The mission was called ‘Operation Sheba’ or ‘Operation Joshua’. During the operation, six Hercules airplanes of the U.S Air Force landed near Al Qadarif, Sudan in order to locate the people who were left behind. Three of them came back empty handed, though the others transported around 500 Jews to the southern Ovda Airbase. A few days later, the President of Sudan was removed as a result of his cooperation with Israel and a new order was made: anyone who cooperated with the transportation of Ethiopian Jews would be executed or imprisoned.
15,000 Jews were left in Sudan and Ethiopia. Families were forced apart, since many didn’t get the chance to flee to Israel after their families did. It became almost impossible for Ethiopian Jews to reach the land of milk and honey.
On May 24, 1991 in the largest aerial train in the history of Israel, 14,500 Jews were transported to Israel in two days, and the count didn’t stop when they boarded the plane: Throughout the flight, seven babies were born. The operation was kept a secret until the last plane landed in Israel.
36 hours and 34 planes were all it took almost two decades ago, to bring almost all Ethiopian Jews home.
Almost 20 years later, The Commander in Chief of the IDF, who led the ground operation as commander of the Shaldag Unit, talked about the personal meaning of the operation: “As commander of Shaldag Unit, I had to deal primarily with the operational aspect and the technical details of the operation. Only during the mission did I get a feel of how big and meaningful it was to be part of this crucial event. It’s a turning point in my service which encompasses both my Zionistic values and the meaning of our existence in this country”.