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Ethiopian Jewry: America's Role in the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry

by Mitchell Bard and Howard Lenhoff

The United States government, and the Reagan Administration in particular, is often accused of putting self-interest ahead of human rights. In recent years, however, the United States placed humanitarian interests ahead of all others in a case involving ten thousand miserable Ethiopian Jewish refugees who wanted nothing more than to emigrate to their national ancestral homeland—Israel.

As the economic and political conditions inside Ethiopia deteriorated, tens of thousands of people began to cross the border to neighboring Sudan. Many Ethiopian Jews joined the exodus. In 1979, the Israelis and, to a smaller degree, private groups began to evacuate the Ethiopian Jews from Sudan by various covert means and bring them to Israel. As word reached the Jewish villages in Ethiopia that the route to Israel lay through Sudan, the flow of Jewish refugees across the border increased dramatically.

After cleaning out the refugee camps of most of the Ethiopian Jews by the winter of 1984, the Israelis discovered that the camps were soon being over, whelmed by new Jewish refugees. It became clear to the Mossad that their previous methods of rescue would not allow them to evacuate the Ethiopian Jews fast enough to prevent them from dying in large numbers in the squalid camps. In addition, the primary method employed by the Mossad-periodic flights from a secret airstrip in the desert near the refugee camps-could not be continued because the risk of being caught and exposing the entire operation had become too great.

Israeli officials then apparently approached the United States and asked for help in rescuing the Ethiopian Jews from Sudan. This request created a major dilemma for the United States because, unlike Israel which was technically at war with Sudan, the United States enjoyed very close relations with President Gaafar el-Numeiry. Moreover, Sudan is located in an important strategic region along the Red Sea and is considered an important nation to maintain the stability of the Horn of Africa and the freedom of navigation through the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb.

The United States provided Sudan with large amounts of aid and, consequently, had a great deal of leverage over Numeiry. In 1984, the Sudanese president was in urgent need of further U.S. aid because of his country's failing economy, civil unrest, and the need to take care of the nearly half million refugees living there. The problem was that, as a member of the Arab League, Numeiry could not afford to be seen helping the “Zionists.” U.S. officials were well aware of the instability of Sudan and were hesitant to do anything that might further endanger Numeiry's regime.

It was in this context that a representative of Sudan came to the United States in June 1984 to ask for additional economic aid. In a meeting with Richard Krieger and Ambassador Eugene Douglas of the State Department, Krieger decided to play on the anti-Semitic feelings of his visitor and suggest that the approval of the omnipotent Jewish lobby would be necessary to obtain congressional support for an increase in aid. He suggested that Sudan could help by allowing the United States to take the Ethiopian Jews out of the refugee camps. “Besides,” Krieger added, “these people are nothing but a burden on the Sudan.” The Sudanese official found this line of argument appealing and steps were put into motion to arrange a rescue operation.

Krieger later flew to Jerusalem to inform the Israelis that an understanding had been reached and then finalized plans with the Sudanese official in Geneva. The refugee affairs coordinator at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, Jerry Weaver, met with Sudanese Vice President and Security Chief Omar Tayeb and secured his agreement to a plan for evacuating the Ethiopian Jews. Weaver, the Israeli Mossad, and the Sudanese secret police then devised the secret operation.

That operation, later known as “Operation Moses,” began on November 21, 1984, and continued until January 5, 1985. Every night during that period, except the Sabbath, buses would pick up groups of about fifty-five Ethiopian Jews from the refugee camps and take them to Khartoum where they would board Boeing 707s. The planes belonged to Trans European Airlines, a Belgian company owned by an Orthodox Jew, and were used routinely as charter planes to carry Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. Altogether, thirty-six flights carrying approximately 220 passengers flew first to Brussels and then on to Tel Aviv. A total of 7,800 Ethiopian Jews was rescued by this method.

News of the airlift eventually leaked out. When the Israeli government confirmed the stories, the Sudanese ordered the operation stopped. The Ethiopian government was outraged, but most Americans reacted jubilantly and shared the feeling of admiration aptly expressed by William Safire: “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought into a country not in chains but as citizens.”

Sources say that all of the Jews in the Sudanese refugee camps would have reached Israel if the airlift had continued for only two more days. Instead, officials believed, perhaps as many as two thousand Jews were left behind in the camps.

Almost immediately, Israeli and American officials began to look for ways to resume the rescue. Senators Alan Cranston and Alfonse D'Amato gathered signatures of all one-hundred senators on a letter to President Reagan urging him to use American influence with Sudan to encourage the resumption of the airlift. The president called Cranston and told him, “We'll take care of what's going on.”

According to Richard Krieger, by the time the letter reached the president on February 21, 1985, plans had already been made to finish the rescue. Vice-President George Bush was scheduled to visit Numeiry in March and was given approval by Reagan to raise the issue of another airlift with the Sudanese leader.

U.S. officials had considered resuming Operation Moses, but, when Bush met with Numeiry on March 3, 1985, he found that Numeiry did not want a repeat of the earlier fiasco. Instead, he agreed to a quick, one-shot operation. Numeiry insisted, however, that the planned operation be carried out secretly by the Americans and not the Israelis and that the flights not go directly to Israel. Within the next week, $15 million of the $200 million in aid for Sudan that had been withheld was ordered released. The remainder was sent later to Sudan.

Bush met with Weaver and the CIA station chief in Khartoum to discuss means for carrying out the president's order to rescue the Ethiopian Jews remaining in Sudan. To avoid the possibility of disclosure, Reagan wanted the operation carried out within three to four days. Weaver took an embassy plane to check out the runway of a remote airstrip near Gedaref, midway between the camps where most of the Ethiopian Jews were living, and found that it would be acceptable for the operation.

On March 28, 1985, the operation, codenamed “Sheba,” began with Ethiopian Jews from Israel working for the Mossad identifying the Ethiopian Jews in the camps and taking them by truck to the airstrip. The airstrip itself was eight miles outside of Gedaref, just far enough so that it would be difficult to spot the planes from the town.

Planes designed to hold ninety passengers each were prepared at the American base near Frankfurt, West Germany. Planes filled with food, water, and medical supplies were flown from an Israeli military base near Eilat to the airstrip in Sudan. These camouflaged U.S. Hercules transports landed at twenty-minute intervals to pick up their passengers. Sudanese security officers cordoned off the area and, by 9:00 a.m., all of the Ethiopian Jews were evacuated. Instead of going to an intermediate destination, the planes flew directly to an Israeli air force base outside Eilat where the passengers were greeted by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The organizers had prepared to airlift as many as two thousand Ethiopian Jews from the camps, but they found only 494, so three planes returned from Sudan empty.

At the end of Operation Sheba, Israeli officials believed that all of the Ethiopian Jews had been evacuated from the refugee camps in Sudan. In fact, a handful was left in the camps and anywhere from seven thousand to fifteen thousand are estimated to be still living in Ethiopia today. Those remaining behind were mainly the very old, the sick, the very young, and the women who, for one reason or another, could not make the arduous journey to Sudan.

Soon after Operation Sheba, Numeiry was overthrown. The timing was largely coincidental, since his fall had been expected by U.S. officials for some time. Vice-President Tayeb and other Sudanese suspected of cooperating with the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews were either imprisoned or executed.

The United States' role in Operation Sheba was significant in more ways than one. First, the operation was organized, conducted, and to some extent financed by the State Department, the CIA, and the air force. The CIA carried out this humanitarian mission with precision and in the clandestine fashion in which it normally operates. The US. government clearly risked security concerns for a purely humanitarian gesture. Despite the fall of Numeiry, U.S. interests in the Sudan have not been seriously hurt; moreover, the rescue operation was a stunning success,

Although the U.S. government had nothing to gain, the responsible political officials, notably George Bush and Ronald Reagan, stood to reap some political rewards for their actions, at least from the Jewish community, but they have surprisingly eschewed the credit they deserve for making the decisions that led to the rescue of hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children. Perhaps they felt that the Jewish world would learn the truth one way or another and that silence would better serve America's relations with its moderate Arab friends. Regardless, the fact remains that hundreds of Jewish lives were saved through the direct actions of the Reagan Administration.

History records that Franklin Roosevelt was a great American president but that, when he had the opportunity and authority to save more than nine hundred European Jews, he failed to do so. In 1939, the St. Louis, filled with men, women, and children who had escaped from Hitler's Germany, was prevented from landing in Cuba and sailed up and down the coast of the United States in the hope that the Americans would permit them to land and find refuge. Instead, President Roosevelt sent Coast Guard cutters to prevent the ship from landing and any of its passengers from making their way to shore.

Forty years later, an American president once again had the chance to save Jewish lives and he took decisive action. Perhaps the American government has learned something from the Holocaust after all.

Sources: The Humanist, November-December 1987.