'Red Sea Spies' tells the extraordinary story of how Israel evacuated an entire community of Ethiopian Jews
Published in the Witness (03/08/2020)
Raffi Berg is the Middle East editor of the BBC News website and here he tells the extraordinary story of how, in the 1980s, Israel evacuated an entire community of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia, via Sudan, to Israel. They had been isolated from other Jews for centuries, had many of their own rituals, didn’t speak Hebrew and some were astonished to discover when they finally made it to Israel that Jews could be white as well as black. Eventually, over 28,000 souls would be resettled in Israel.
Initially, as a response to unrest in Ethiopia, many had made their way to Sudan where they found themselves in refugee camps and kept their faith hidden. Mossad agents, working undercover, began to smuggle them out with a combination of skill and luck, but the numbers were small. But then “Dani”, the Mossad commander of the operation, found an old, abandoned diving resort on the Red Sea Coast. Mossad set it up as a genuine resort with divers coming in from around the world, but it was a front for smuggling people, by sea and eventually even by air from a gravel landing strip in the desert, out of the country.
It is an extraordinary story, filled with heroism, near misses and an incredibly gung-ho bunch of characters. Many of the evacuees had never seen the sea or an aeroplane before, so the whole experience must have been completely terrifying for them. Meanwhile, the Sudanese never managed to notice that thousands of people were being flown and shipped out of their country, though the near misses got ever nearer.
By 1984, there was a degree of co-operation between the Sudanese and Israeli governments, but a coup in Sudan finally blew Mossad’s cover, and the last agents were airlifted out in a daring clandestine rescue. There are still many parts of the operation that are secret, though Berg has done an astonishing job of reportage, interviewing various of those involved and piecing together his incredible story. I would have liked more detail of how the Ethiopian Jews have assimilated into Israeli society — it has certainly not been a straightforward process — but I suppose that is not in the remit of this book. Berg’s is a tale of adventure and he tells it with panache.