30 Years On, Newly Released Footage Shows Historical Israeli Rescue of Ethiopian Jews

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Ethiopian Jews on a plane to Israel, 1991.
Ethiopian Jews on a plane to Israel, 1991.Credit: Miki Tzarfati / IDF Archive
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A collection of videos, images and documents connected with the rescue of Ethiopian Jews is now being made available to the public to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Solomon, which brought 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel on May 24, 1991.

Found during a digitization project being undertaken by army archivists, the material documents preparations for the rescue planes’ takeoff, their landing in Addis Ababa and the moment that the operation’s commander, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, announced it was being launched. The videos were made by air force personnel, among them commandos from the Shaldag commando unit then led by Benny Gantz, which guarded the Israeli planes on the tarmac in Ethiopia.

Along with the videos, the archive includes an audio recording of Gantz speaking about the operation shortly after it had been completed. “During the operation there’s no time to get excited – you’re working under pressure. But on the plane you look around, mainly at the old people and the children. The old people – you know their dream is coming true. And the children – you know that for sure it will take 30 to 40 years for them to become fully integrated, but after that it will be fine,” he says.

IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak meets immigrants at Ben-Gurion International Airport, 1991.Credit: Miki Tzarfati/IDF Archive

Later, Gantz adds, “The Ethiopian community can expect a difficult absorption process lasting decades, but we in the unit made the first 24 hours the best we could for them.”

The archive also released the “operation file,” which includes the order for Operation Solomon, the research done for it and the accompanying intelligence survey. Some of the documents released are still partially redacted.

5Credit: Miki Tzarfati/IDF Archive

The order, dubbed “Rainstorm,” explained that the operation was being undertaken because “the distress of the Jews in Ethiopia is increasing. The Ethiopian government is permitting a selective ‘trickle’ of immigrants, a tiny number every week. Moreover, the domestic political/military situation hints that the rule of the current regime is coming to an end, casting a heavy pall on the future of the Jewish population there.” At the time, the order had been classified as top secret.

Reading through the documents shows that “serious faults were discovered” in maintaining the air force’s “communication security” during the preparations for the operation, along with several technical problems and failures. But the bottom line was that the operation was a success: Within 36 hours nearly 15,000 Jews had been brought to Israel on dozens of planes.

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