Operation Solomon

May 28, 1991

Operation Solomon, the rescue of 14,087 Ethiopian Jews and their transport to Israel within a period of 33 hours as a vicious civil war raged all around them, is about as close to a modern-day miracle as this cynical world can countenance. Now, almost complete, is an exodus that reconfirms Israel's mission as a refuge for world Jewry wherever it is threatened.

The Ethiopian Jews trace their origins to the progeny of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who are said to have journeyed to Africa around the time of the building of the First Temple. Others believe they are part of the lost tribe of Dan. Whatever the actual story, an African people have lived for centuries in the northeastern Ethiopian province of Gonder, practicing a form of Judaism based largely on the Bible, not the Talmud and other Jewish writings that emerged much later.

Now some 34,000 Ethiopian Jews are citizens of Israel where, in the words of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, "no one will persecute them anymore." The escape to Israel of the first 20,000 began modestly and in greatest secrecy in November 1984 as tribesmen trekked to Sudan, there to be flown to the promised land. But when news of what was then called Operation Moses leaked out, Ethiopia and Sudan stopped the flow at Arab insistence. There is little doubt that payoffs and even the transfer of arms were involved. As the government of Ethiopia started heading for what seems its inevitable defeat, President Mengistu Haile Mariam recognized Israel and let out small numbers to improve his terrible image.

This past weekend, the governments of Israel and the United States exploited Ethiopia's weakness to bring off Operation Solomon in exchange for U.S. mediation between Mengistu's replacement government and victorious rebels now moving into

Addis Ababa. Thirty-four Israeli and one Ethiopian aircraft evacuated Ethiopian Jews who had gathered in the capital. Carrying only a few belongings, in 3 1/2 -hour flights they were transported cultural centuries -- from agricultural subsistence into modernity.

For both hosts and newcomers, the addition of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to the 250,000 Soviet Jews who have arrived in the past 20 months will make the task of absorption that much more daunting. Emigres from Europe have relatively little difficulty; not so those from Africa, who will need much help in adjusting to a totally new way of life.

Five years ago, the Ethiopian Jews were called "Falashas" (or strangers) and encountered both religious and racial obstacles to their full acceptance. Now that pejorative word is rarely used in Israel. The country, instead, is rejoicing and feeling good about itself. Once again, with important American help, it has made the "Law of Return" as meaningful and imperative as it was in the early days of Zionism and the flight from Hitlerism.

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