The Real Heroes of the ‘Red Sea Diving Resort’ Rescue

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in a daring mission involving a fake vacation village. The brother of the Ethiopian activist who helped kick-start the operation hopes Netflix’s new film will raise awareness about the community’s bravery

Naftali Aklum holding a framed photograph of his brother Farede Yazazao Aklum, who helped coordinate the rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews during Operation Brothers in the 1980s.
Naftali Aklum holding a framed photograph of his brother Farede Yazazao Aklum, who helped coordinate the rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews during Operation Brothers in the 1980s. Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For a profit-seeking young company, Sudan might not seem the safest or most logical place to open a diving resort. Luckily, Arous’ owners could have cared less about economic success in the early 1980s — because tourists were never their main concern. Their beachfront resort on the Red Sea was actually a front for Mossad agents seeking to smuggle thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

If this all sounds like the kind of story you might expect in a movie, well, now it is.

“The Red Sea Diving Resort” premieres on Netflix this Wednesday. Starring Chris Evans (“Avengers: Endgame”), Ben Kingsley (“Schindler’s List”) and Haley Bennett (“The Girl on the Train”), and written and directed by Gideon Raff (“Homeland”), it is based on the covert Israeli mission Operation Brothers.

The Red Sea Diving Resort | Official Trailer | Netflix

>> 'Red Sea Diving Resort' hits Netflix this week. Here's the unbelievable Mossad op behind it <<

But according to Naftali Aklum, the brother of one of the movie’s Ethiopian protagonists, the most heroic and inspirational tale is actually the other side of the story: The perilous journey of the Ethiopian Jews, and the risks taken by the activists among them in Ethiopia and Sudan. That story, even if told indirectly, would help empower young Ethiopian-Israelis searching for their identities in a society that does not fully accept them, he says.

The poster from Netflix's "The Red Sea Diving Resort."Credit: Netflix

At a surprise screening of the film to the Jewish community in Canada last year, Raff himself echoed those sentiments: “When I meet one of the leading doctors in Israel who tells me his father carried him as a 4-year-old on his shoulders out of Ethiopia, or [meet] artists or members of the Knesset [of Ethiopian origin], I know this is something the world should know about,” he said.

Little Moses

In 1977, after a secret deal was struck between Ethiopia’s Marxist regime and the Israeli government involving the sale of arms, the first Ethiopian Jews were allowed to covertly leave the country in two Israeli airlifts. But after Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan spoke publicly about the deal in February 1978, Ethiopia’s angry leaders reneged on the agreement and began persecuting the Ethiopian-Jewish activists involved in the operation.

One of those activists was Farede Yazazao Aklum.

Farede Aklum is the inspiration for the character of Kebede Bimro (played by Michael K. Williams of “The Wire” fame) in the new film. Fearing for his life following the breakdown of the covert deal, Aklum fled his home in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, and began walking the 480 kilometers (300 miles) to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. He carried in his pocket a notebook with the contact information of the Mossad agents he had been liaising with for the airlift operation.

Farede Yazazao Aklum. Walked 300 miles to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he made contact with Mossad agents to kick-start the exodus to Israel.Credit: Aklum family

Naftali Aklum recounts that when his brother finally arrived in Sudan a month later, he mailed letters to the Mossad asking for help. One of those letters found its way to then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who sent Danny Limor — the Mossad agent who would later mastermind the diving operation — to rescue Farede Aklum. (Limor is the basis for the Ari Levinson character played by Evans and served as a script consultant on the movie.)

While staying with Limor in a Khartoum safe house, Farede Aklum had an idea: If he could convince Ethiopian Jews to come to Sudan, maybe the Mossad could evacuate them too. From Khartoum, Aklum wrote letters to all the Jewish villages in Ethiopia, urging them to take the long journey to Sudan so they could fulfill their 2,700-year old dream of returning to Zion.

Naftali Aklum estimates that between 1979 and 1984, some 20,000 members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community walked to neighboring Sudan from about 500 villages in northern Ethiopia. Naftali says about 4,000 of them died en route due to starvation, exposure and attacks from local bandits. Of those who survived, he says, many more died of starvation and disease in Sudanese refugee camps straining from the influx of many Muslims and Christians fleeing the Ethiopian Civil War.

Once the Ethiopian Jews were in Sudan, the Mossad had to find a way of evacuating them. This is when it devised a brilliant plan reminiscent of the biblical exodus: To smuggle Ethiopian Jews across the Red Sea, using a fake diving resort as a front from which to evacuate them via planes and boats.

Traumatic journey

Naftali Aklum outside the Ethiopian Jewry House in Be'er Sheva. "Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I don’t want people to think ‘Oh, [the Israeli government] saved the Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia,’ because that’s not true,” Naftali Aklum tells Haaretz. “We are the true heroes — the Ethiopian Jews, the ones who left our houses and marched to Sudan when no one promised us that, in the end, we will make it to Jerusalem.”

Naftali Aklum and his entire village of Endabaguna made the 480-kilometer journey to Sudan in 1979, a few years before the Red Sea diving resort opened in 1981. He and his family spent time in a safe house in Khartoum before being given fake passports and airlifted to Israel via Greece. Naftali, the youngest of 12 children (Ferede, 30 years his senior, was the oldest), was 1-year-old when his family arrived in Israel. They were housed in the southern city of Be’er Sheva, where he grew up in a 75 percent Ethiopian neighborhood. He says that, in hindsight, this made it hard for him to integrate into Israeli society.

He explains that, like the children of Holocaust survivors, his generation were never told about their parents’ courageous and traumatic journeys. “We grew up [thinking] that the real hero was the government of Israel, so we were looking for role models from our community — because no one spoke about the great things our parents did.”

Growing up in Israel with older parents who didn’t speak Hebrew, Naftali Aklum says he sometimes felt ashamed of his family. Many members of his community, even from younger generations, feel the same way, he adds.

“You don’t have a lot of respect for your parents … and you also really want to [fit into] Israeli society, so you think: ‘If I delete everything that I have from Ethiopia, then my way to the new society will be easier,’” he notes.

It wasn’t until Naftali Aklum started serving in the Israel Defense Forces that he says he “began to feel Israeli.” He went on to study politics, government, history and Middle Eastern studies at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, graduating in 2008. As he became more integrated in Israeli society, he says he became more confused about his complex identity. In 2009 he decided to take a “roots trip” back to Ethiopia, where he “found himself. That was the moment I realized I have a great history, I don’t need to delete that; I need to be proud of that,” he says.

Israelis of Ethiopian origin protesting in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2019, after the death of a young man of Ethiopian origin near the Israeli city of Haifa on June 30.Credit: AFP

This was the moment Naftali Aklum decided to devote his life to giving lectures and leading tours and workshops on the story of Ethiopia’s Jews.

Empowering the young

Naftali Aklum is optimistic that “The Red Sea Diving Resort” will help young Ethiopians feel more proud of their history, reinforcing the heroism and importance of their role models like his brother Farede, who continues to be known in the Ethiopian-Israeli community as “Little Moses.”

Farede Aklum’s service to the State of Israel didn’t end with Operation Brothers. He continued to work for the Mossad until he died in mysterious circumstances during a visit to Addis Ababa at age 60 in 2009.

Naftali Aklum cites identity issues as “one of the main problems of the young generation here. On the one hand, they are proud Jews. Some of them are not very proud to be Israelis. Some of them are proud they are Ethiopian. Some of them are proud they are Israeli and not proud they are Ethiopian.” Only by being proud of their complex identity as Jews, Israelis and black people will young Ethiopians be able to fully integrate into Israeli society, he believes.

In addition, Naftali Aklum hopes that the movie, just like his organization, will make other Israelis aware of the Ethiopian Jews’ story — a narrative which many Ethiopian-Israeli activists are lobbying to be incorporated into school curriculums. He argues that teaching this story will help ease prejudice against the community.

Michael K. Williams, left, as Kebede Bimro and Chris Evans as Mossad agent Ari Levinson in "The Red Sea Diving Resort."Credit: Netflix / Marcos Cruz

“Unfortunately, racism didn’t skip Israel,” Naftali Aklum says. The protests across Israel earlier this month, in which thousands took to the streets to protest police brutality (following the shooting death of 18-year-old Solomon Teka), highlighted the despair and anger of many second-generation Ethiopian Israelis — that despite being Jewish, serving in the military and being native Hebrew speakers, their color hampers their social acceptance as “true Israelis.”

Despite knowing that the Netflix movie will not tell the full story, Naftali Aklum still sees it as a victory for his community. “As long as the movie is out, people will want to learn more, to do more research,” he says.

This story isn’t just important for Ethiopian Jews, Naftali Aklum stresses, it’s important for “Jews all over the world”: For them to understand that thousands of people left their comfortable lives and walked into the unknown; that they embraced the possibility of death for the dream of “making it to Jerusalem.” That, he says, is the pinnacle of Zionism.

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