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From Tragedy to Triumph:
The Politics behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry


From Tragedy to TriumphIn 1984, 1985 and 1991, Israel dramatically rescued thousands of Ethiopian Jews in large-scale, secret airlifts. Thousands more were brought to Israel in other ways including government-run covert operations, exchanges for arms and open immigration. These operations represent the triumph in the story of the politics behind the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and illustrate what Israel can do when Jewish lives are at stake. While other countries turned a blind eye to the suffering of the thousands of refugees in the Sudan, Israel took action. Mossad agents, and Ethiopian Jews from Israel working for them, risked their lives to save other Jews in the tradition of pikuach nefesh. As the Talmud says, to save one life is as if one saved the entire human race. The exploits of the agents involved in the rescue were truly heroic.

The United States government also played an important role, especially in Operation Sheba after public disclosures undermined the Israeli operations. It was a rare instance where an American administration placed humanitarian concerns above national interests.

Israel’s effort to bring an ancient Jewish community to its homeland also reinvigorated the raison d' etre of Zionism that Golda Meir had expressed when she said "there is no Zionism except the rescue of Jews." Jews in Israel and around the world expected the response. As Yehuda Dominitz related, "if someone told Ugandan refugees a plane was going to pick them up, they wouldn't believe it....The Ethiopian Jews did believe it...." The Ethiopian Jews, and Jews around the world, knew that Israel would answer the call made by Rabbi Kook.

What then is the tragedy referred to in the title of this book?

The tragedy of the story is that the chief rabbi who warned of the extinction of the Ethiopian Jews made his appeal in 1921. It took nearly half a century for world Jewry and the leaders of Israel to take action to save this ancient branch of the Jewish people. The number of Ethiopian Jews, estimated to be as high as 200,000 late in the 19th century had dwindled to 28,000 by the time of the 1976 census.

A handful of activists, primarily in the United States, helped prod the Israeli government to act by demonstrating that mere “amateurs” could rescue Jews, by constant lobbying of both the Israeli and U.S. governments, and by sometimes shameless propaganda and unwarranted attacks on Israel’s motives. While these advocates tirelessly advanced the cause, the American Jewish establishment stayed mostly silent, satisfied with Israeli assurances that everything that could be done was being done.

The tragedy is that the Beta Israel, a proud people, who had maintained their religion for millennia, had its Jewishness questioned for years and nearly disappeared before the eyes of a generation that had watched helplessly as the Holocaust unfolded. Did we fail to learn our lesson from that event? If not, why did it take so long to act on behalf of the Ethiopian Jews and what were the factors that brought about the ultimate decision to prevent the community from being relegated to an encyclopedia entry, or a museum exhibit of lost Jewish communities? The remainder of this book will explore the answers to these questions and explain the politics behind the rescue of the Jews of Ethiopia — the triumph and the tragedy.


From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry