On Wings of Eagles
The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus
303 pages, $24.95(paper)
Ever since the founding of the State of Israel the status and fate of the Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews, had been debated by the Israeli rabbinate. In their own country, Ethiopian Jews were called falasha—in Amharic, a derogatory appellation meaning “outsiders,” “strangers without rights.”
Since the very beginning of the 20th century there were those who realized that education was the only route to counteract the work of Christian missionaries and save the Beta Israel from total obliteration. As early as 1920, mainstream halakhic study was brought to Ethiopia and a very small number of young people were brought to Palestine for schooling. In 1948, Ethiopian Jewry was thrilled by the creation of the State of Israel. However, it wasn’t until 1975 that the Law of Return was applied to the Beta Israel and the path opened for aliyah to Israel. It was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, who stated that “…the Falashas are the descendants of the tribes of Israel that went south to Cush…and I have decided that…the Falashas are Jews and they must be rescued from assimilation and intermarriage and their aliyah to Israel should be speedily carried out…”
“By secret ways,” in small groups, about 7,000 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) were brought to Israel. It is understandable that Israeli leaders attending the 1984 General Assembly were flummoxed by the meeting-stopping demonstration by college students and young adults insisting on the immediate rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. They could not be told of the already secretly successful aliyah nor could the imminent commencement of Operation Moses be discussed.
Operation Moses was a semi-covert operation between November 1984 and January 1985 that rescued an additional 7,000 Ethiopian Jews, bringing the number in Israel to about 14,000. Those of us who traveled to Israel, met the planes and visited the absorption centers, have indelible memories of emaciated elders kissing the ground of eretz yisroel; memories of young Israeli social workers teaching grown men how to use a toilet and women how to use a bathtub at the absorption centers in Atlit and Safed. I asked a young Israeli at Kfar Saba how she managed such difficult tasks. “Somebody has to do it,” she replied.
The author, Micha Feldman, speaks Amharic fluently and has worked for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and other organizations, principally on immigration and absorption for more than 40 years. He is known in the Ethiopian community as Abba Micha, “Grandfather Micha,” and is one of the great heroes of the historic Ethiopian aliyah. On Wings of Eagles is Feldman’s detailed accounting of the unbelievably complicated task undertaken by Israel during the 15 or so years since the Falasha were embraced by the Law of Return. (Aside from the pure humanitarian relief of the suffering, starvation, and death of thousands of human beings, a comparison of immigration numbers to population would be the United States undertaking the immigration and integration of one million largely illiterate black Africans. Imagine the social chaos! It boggles the mind!)
Feldman hides nothing, from the corruption of some of the Jewish Ethiopian “committee men” to the greed of Ethiopian officials, to the occasional internecine quarreling among relief organizations. Starving, preyed upon, and facing unbelievable family separations the new olim faced harsh cultural adjustments in Israel. Sometimes the Israelis could not get it right no matter how they tried. If they placed the Ethiopians together in housing, there were cries of ghettoization; if they integrated them among other working class Israelis, they yearned to be with their own people. Israeli family life culture was so different from that in Ethiopia that, while many adjusted quickly, a like number did poorly and suicides exceeded normal expectations.
One of the great strengths of On Wings of Eagles is the author’s use of his diary entries, enriched by dozens of heartbreaking stories, testimony of aspiring olim. As the number of rescued Ethiopian Jews increased, those left behind faced unbearable discrimination, persecution and hardship. The revolution against the Communist dictator, President Mengistu Haile Mariam, and his cronies threatened the collapse of Israeli and American efforts, making the final extraction of Jews a matter of great urgency. A “hostage” deal was struck: $35 million in ransom was raised in America and deposited in New York accounts of the Ethiopian government. The revolutionaries, surrounding Addis Ababa, agreed to delay a takeover for 24 hours. Just in time, Operation Solomon, a flotilla of Israeli military, commercial and chartered aircraft carried 14,310 Ethiopian Jews to Israel on May 25, 1991. Babies were born and people died en route. Jews the world over celebrated.
But, as always, after a celebratory tickertape parade comes the cleanup. Israel is still coping with the resettlement of the Ethiopians. Even the successful olim, faced with the unending stress of life in present day Israel, can’t be blamed for wondering if they might not be better off in their little huts in Ethiopia, tending their bees, or plying their crafts.
The author suitably credits people involved with the Ethiopian exodus. The JAFI staff, American officials, Israeli officials in Addis Ababa, Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) staff, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry—and even venal Ethiopian officials without whose cooperation we would have failed—duly noted.
Feldman’s loving benediction to this chapter of Jewish history is capped by a poem written by Galit Halili, a 12-yearold girl born in Israel of Iraqi parents who arrived in an earlier wave of migration:
Behold, look, I am coming to you, my land, Sing as I laugh and let us rejoice. Embrace me with others who once were alone, Embrace me, kiss me, feed me fine fruits of choice. Stretch out your hands to shelter those ground in the dust, Stretch out your arms, ignoring distance and bounds.
Micha Feldman will speak at United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Campaign Kick-off on Thursday, Sept. 27. Call 757‑965-6115 for information