An Overview of the Covert Airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel


In 1984, 1985 and again in 1991 Israel covertly arranged for hundreds of Ethiopian Jews to be brought to Israel.

Israel, in 1984, 1985 and 1991 launched covert operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state.

Operation Moses

Operation Moses was the first of these kinds of covert operations. The operation saw the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the U.S. embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, mercenaries and Sudanese security forces all working with a common aim of getting Ethiopian Jews (the Beta Israel community) from Sudan.

Thousands of members of this community had previously fled Sudan from Ethiopia on foot to Sudanese refuge camps. Secretly aiding the Israelis the Sudanese government allowed 8,000 members of Beta Israel to leave Sudan on TEA planes straight to Israel before calling off the airlift.

However the operation was terminated in January 5th 1985 when Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres confirmed the airlift in a press conference when asked about it. Sudan immediately put a stop to the airlift. Arab countries subsequently pressured Sudan to stop the airlift, leaving some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews behind and brigning about 1,000 “orphans of circumstance” in Israel. These were children whom were separated from their families of whom were left behind after the airlift was called off.

Operation Joshua

Then U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush had the CIA aid in Operation Joshua, a direct followup to Operation Moses, with pretty much the same aim. This operation managed to bring 494 of those Ethiopian Jews still in Sudanese refugee camps to Israel.

However the Mengistu Haile Mariam dictatorship in Ethiopia had no interest in permitting an emigration of the Jewish community in his country.

In Israel meanwhile, the Ethiopians had a hard time adjusting, separated from their families they struggled to adjust to Israeli society. The modern industrialized society was a far cry from the simple lives they had in their tukuls back in Ethiopia.

Operation Solomon

Finally in 1991, the government of Mengistu seemed close to toppling, Ethiopia was faced with dangerous destabilization from Eritrean and Tigrean rebels.

Israel showed grave concern over the safety of the Beta Israel community. Mengistu had made it difficult for emigration, therefore whilst that regime was in dire straits and losing its power and influence over the country the Jewish community within Ethiopia were presented with a chance to leave.

The IDF had been watching the political situation in the country since the year beforehand and were making plans for a mass and covert airlift of that community to Israel.

Over the space of 36 hours of non-stop flights over 30 Israeli planes, consisting of Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules transports and El Al (Israels main national airline) airliners transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. One case saw a single El Al Boeing 747 carry 1,122 passengers in a single flight after the Israelis had initially planned to have a maximum of 760 on that flight. However given the weight of the human cargo many more were able to fit aboard. During that flight alone two babies were born on the way to their new home.

Many of the “orphans of circumstance” were reunited with their families following this airlift, many of whom until that point hadnt been in touch since 1984.