Ethiopian Jewry is often shrouded in mystery. People are now mobilizing to let their fascinating story be told.
The story of the Jewish Ethiopian arrival to Israel is fascinating, heartbreaking and historic. Now, 40 years after the first wave of Ethiopians arrived to the Holy Land, their story is being told, as members of this community seek to memorialize those who sacrificed so much to save this group of “lost” Jews.
One important part of their saga is the story of Ferede Aklum, a self-made Ethiopian leader who became a Mossad agent and saved thousands of Ethiopians. He was the first to lead a group of Ethiopian Jews through the desert and paved the way for Operation Moses and Operation Solomon
In 1977, following his escape with a group of non-Jewish Ethiopians from Sudan’s civil war and devastating famine, Aklum’s fame begins.
Aklum wrote an urgent letter to the Israeli representative in Geneva, pleading for help to save the Ethiopian Jews. The letter miraculously found its way to the Mossad in Tel Aviv, setting the stage for many clandestine operations.
Chief Rabbis Confirm Beta Israelis are Part of the Nation of Israel
Called Beta Israel (House of Israel,) Ethiopian Jews are believed to be descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes from the kingdom of Israel. Others think that they arrived to Ethiopia, around 950 AD, with one of the son’s of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Still, some conjecture that they came to Ethiopia after the destruction of the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in 586 AD.
What is known is that the Beta Israel have lived separately, as Jews, apart from the non-Jews surrounding them, even though they only had the written Torah to follow and not the Jewish oral tradition, which clarifies Jewish law.
Amazingly, their isolation from other Jews for thousands of years led them to believe that they were the world’s last remnant of the Jewish people.
In part, due to Aklum’s efforts, Israel’s chief rabbis confirmed that the Beta Israelis were part of the Nation of Israel and could come home to Israel through the Jewish Right of Return law. However, welcoming them into Israel was easier than getting them into Israel.
Though then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had been a Nazi-era refugee, understood the plight of the Ethiopians and the need to get them to the safe haven of the Holy Land, these Jews could escape their Muslim hosts only through covert efforts.
Following Aklum’s pleading letters finding its way to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, it was recognized that these Jews were in an urgent situation. This lead to the herculean efforts needed to save the Ethiopian Jews from both the country’s civil war as well as starvation.
Aklum and the Mossad
The Mossad tracked down Aklum and made him a team member. Aklum sent messages to his community saying that their 2,000-year-old dream to return to the holy city and Jerusalem would best materialize if they could get to Sudan, as severe regulations on emigration were in place in Ethiopia.
This encouragement set some 14,000 Beta Israelis to walk 800 kilometers (500 miles) to the Sudanese border. It is estimated that 1,500-4,000 of these Jewish refugees were killed, perished or abducted along the harrowing journey.
In a fascinating tale, now made into a movie called “Red Sea Diving Resort,” the Mossad, including Aklum, established a “fake” vacation get-away on the Sudanese border. By day, the place was run by Mossad intelligence officers, along with some regular staff, to make it look legitimate, and had real vacationers.
By night, the Mossad staff would leave, under the cover of darkness, and rendezvous with groups of escaping Ethiopian Jews.
These refugees were not informed where they were going for fear of detection along the many checkpoints on the way. The frightened groups were brought through the checkpoints by the use of guile, bribery and, occasionally, force.
In 1982, the Ethiopian refugees began to be air-lifted out of the Sudan. Known as “Operation Moses,” this also was a secret mission. Seventeen successful clandestine flights were arranged through the Mossad agents of the Red Sea Diving Resort.
Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker Avishai Mekonen is also seeking to memorialize the heroes who saved Ethiopian Jewry. He was 10 years old when he walked from Ethiopia to Sudan, eventually making it to Israel.
In an interview posted by My Jewish Learning in 2017, Mekonen says, “It is important for our young people to know that in our own Ethiopian community there were people who were brave and fought for so many years.”
Listing the names of several Ethiopian heroes of the time, Mekonen says of Aklum, “[He was a] teacher, activist, leader, and James Bond who endangered himself to make escape routes for the community from Ethiopia through Sudan, to get to Israel, and worked with the Mossad. These activists had no money, no guides, no equipment. They had a dream and they made it happen. Many of these people were put in jail for days or months because leaving Ethiopia was illegal. They were beaten and tortured. Some died in jail. Those who were released did not give up. These people were true heroes.”
The Hero Lives On
Aklum had settled with his family in Beersheva, where he continued his work on behalf of immigrants to Israel. In 2017, the mysterious and meritorious Mossad agent, who died in 2009, had Shofar Square in Beersheva named after him.
Aklum is considered one of the most important figures in Ethiopian Jewish history, especially for his dangerous, life-saving efforts to bring tens of thousands of Ethiopians to Israel.
Ynet quotes his brother Amram as saying, “We have a lot to learn from them about loving this land, about Zionism, about sacrifices and about making a 2,000-year-old dream come true.”
That’s something each of us can take to heart.