Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews

Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews


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Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews by Asher Naim

For nearly three thousand years, the black Jews of Ethiopia–known as the Falashas–maintained their faith and their identity in the face of drought, famine, and tribal war. They were indeed the lost tribe, tracing their ancestry to King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. Then in May 1991, these Ethiopian Jews staged a miraculous exodus. With Ethiopia exploding around them in brutal civil war, some fourteen thousand Falashas were safely airlifted to Jerusalem by the Israeli air force over the course of twenty-five harrowing hours. Told by the Israeli ambassador who made it happen, this spellbinding book is the story of that incredible rescue–as well as an extraordinary history of the Falashas, the remarkable people whose faith never waivered, even when confronted with enormous atrocities.

Asher Naim knew practically nothing about the Falashas when he was posted to Addis Ababa by the Israeli government in the fall of 1990, but he instantly found himself swept up in their plight. As rebel forces advanced against Ethiopia’s savage dictator, Mengistu Haile Meriam (“the Butcher of Addis”), it became clear that the Falashas would be slaughtered unless they could be snatched from the violence overwhelming their country.

Naim set to work on several fronts simultaneously–negotiating with Mengistu and his deceptively charming right hand man, coordinating logistics and strategy with the Israeli military, frantically raising money through contacts in America. On May 23, Naim realized it was now or never, and word went out to the Israeli air force: Operation Solomon must begin at once. With twenty thousand Falashas crowding the Israeli embassycompound, the first Israeli planes landed at the Addis airport and a team of crack Israeli commandos took position with instructions to protect the operation “at any cost.” Four hours later, the first planeload of Falashas took off for Israel.

For Asher Naim the rescue of the Falashas became a kind of personal quest–a quest not only to free his fellow Jews from tyranny but also to uphold the sacredness of human life. In helping the Falashas realize their three-thousand-year-old dream of returning to Jerusalem, Naim came to a profoundly new understanding of the nature of faith, identity, and the struggle to endure. Saving the Lost Tribe is a magnificent achievement, a story of hope in the face of chaos and redemption on the brink of disaster.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345450814
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/01/2003
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.86(w) x 9.02(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Asher Naim, an eminent Israeli diplomat, has served as the cultural attaché to Japan and the U.S. and the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Finland, South Korea and Ethiopia. As the founder of the Ethiopian Scholarship Fund for Ethiopian Jews, Naim raises money for young Ethiopians living in Israel who wish to attend college and graduate school.

Read an Excerpt


November 11, 1990

The Peugeot 504 barreled through the pitted streets of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a blue-and-white Israeli flag flapping on its hood. I leaned into its plush backseat. Next to me was Uri Lubrani, a high-level Israeli official in the Ministry of Defense who had gotten me into this mess. The Peugeot plunged into a pothole, suspension rocking, and Lubrani shot me a doleful glance. Lubrani always looks like he's expecting the worst. I paid no attention. I had just arrived in Addis and would soon be meeting with President Mengistu Haile Mariam. Perhaps he was ready to permit the thousands of Beta Israel, the black Ethiopian Jews encamped in Addis, to emigrate to Israel. As the newly appointed Israeli ambassador, I had to conduct the hair-trigger negotiations for their release.

It was not a job I had wanted. I had just concluded a three-year posting in Finland, orchestrating the emigration of tens of thousands of Russian Jews from what was then the Soviet Union to Israel. I'd barely unpacked in my home in Jerusalem when I'd been reassigned. As a professional diplomat I'm accustomed to a whir of time zones, countries, and cultures. But I needed a break, and I'd been pushed into service yet again.

I wondered, fleetingly, why Lubrani had refused the ambassadorship. He loved the limelight. Saving Jews was always a

popular cause with the higher-ups with whom Lubrani loved to consort. Perhaps he'd declined because the risk of failure was high. Instead, he had chosen to oversee the operation, a role that would send him to Washington, his destination of choice. If the mission succeeded, he would hog the credit; if it failed, itwould be my bones that would be broken into a million pieces, as we say in Hebrew--but not, God willing, in the way that had almost happened to my predecessor.

The Peugeot was almost brand-new, used for only six months by the last Israeli ambassador, Meir Yoffe. A Libyan operative (a terrorist with a diplomatic passport) had placed a briefcase bomb in the stall of a public bathroom in the Hilton where Yoffe was using the facilities. Fortunately the Libyans, as usual, botched the operation. The bomb exploded but Yoffe escaped unscathed.

He always used the stall they booby-trapped, but for some reason he had changed stalls that day, and it had saved his life. His nerves, however, were shot; he'd had enough of Ethiopia.

I rode through Addis, past peeling billboards of Mengistu and Lenin. The road was a mess. Mengistu had poured Ethiopia's resources into his army, the largest in Africa, and left the rest of the country to rot. Addis itself was a typical sub-Saharan African city--a huge village of huts, mud houses, shanties, and an occasional building. Soldiers in uniform picked their way through emaciated beggars, flies clustered around their lips and eyes. Barefoot women in long brightly colored robes walked with a swaying gait, baskets on their heads. Cars and scooters flew like bats out of hell, weaving around the donkeys, cattle, and sheep that roamed the streets.

"Run over a sheep, sir, and you must pay a hundred birr," said my driver Konata, a man to whom I'd taken an immediate liking. "The courts are full."

"Of dead sheep?"

"Yes, sir! But a pregnant sheep is 150 birr"--about twenty-five dollars.


"So now every sheep is pregnant!"

We shared a laugh: Africa in a nutshell. I knew this because I was born and raised in Tripoli, and in the 1960s I had directed Israel's aid program in Africa. At that time I had been a great Africa enthusiast. We in Israel were convinced that Africa was the continent of the future. So rich in resources! So much promise! We saw the African independence movements of the 1960s as an immensely positive sign. They had cast off colonial shackles and forged national identities, just as we Jews had done in 1948. But by the time I came to Addis, like so many others, I was deeply disappointed. Corruption, greed, and selfishness had plagued Africa. On the surface (although I was to learn that this appearance was deceptive), Ethiopia was typical--rebels, poverty, famine, dictatorship, and disease.

We went straight to the ambassador's residence--a suite at the Hilton. A round-the-clock guard of Ethiopian soldiers had been posted outside my door. The government didn't want the Libyans pulling another Yoffe.

"Get rid of the bubot," said David, my chief of security. Bubot are dolls who do nothing.

David was in his late twenties, balding on top, wide as a door and silent on his feet. He carried a black Beretta strapped on his back just above the belt. We had plenty of weapons in Addis--Uzis hidden in a safe house and at the embassy. I had been trained in small arms before I came, a refresher course, really, since I had fought in the army and served in the reserves.

"No, no," I said. "I don't want to hurt their feelings."

"Feelings! What do their feelings have to do with your safety?"

This was fast becoming a typical Israeli argument. David's Hebrew had heated up and the Ethiopian guards were wide-eyed. What would have happened to them if they had rebuked a superior in such a tone? They had no idea what was coming next.

I laid my hand on David's arm and took him aside. "Just their presence will serve as deterrent. Don't argue with me on this."

He shook his head, unrepentant, and it wasn't long before I displeased him again. Yoffe's suite had been on the seventh floor, but I didn't want to rely on the elevator every time I wanted to go in or out. David fumed. I was too accessible, he argued. I overruled him.

I could see David was containing himself. He put his own security team of two men in place, members of our specially trained secret service. David wanted me to keep a pistol in my suite, but I said no. If there was a gun around, there was a chance that I'd use it. That was David's job, and I put my faith in him. All security people are a nudge. Wherever I go, I always sign a paper relieving them of responsibility if I'm blown up or shot. Then I do what I want.

My suite on the lower floor was comfortable--two bedrooms, two baths, sitting room, and kitchenette. In the midst of all the chaos, the Hilton was still a Hilton. My balcony looked out over the ten-foot-high wall that enclosed the hotel's grounds against the jumble of the city. Big mountains, green up their slopes, rose into the African sunset.

Darkness fell, and I went out on the lawns that stretched away into shadows of the flowering trees. David was at my side. The city murmured beyond the high walls. Empty tennis courts were lit up under blazing lights. No one swam in the heated pool; the smell of chlorine rose off its unruffled surface. Most foreigners had already jumped ship. The staff stood around doing nothing. I ordered a soda from one of the servers. A scooter backfired as she brought it and she cringed, the bottle dropping onto the grass. She retrieved it with a graceful curtsy and long, slender fingers.

I watched how she was startled at the slightest sound. Who would be rounded up, tortured, and shot by the army tonight? Who would be caught violating the citywide curfew? Guards in army uniforms, cradling rifles, were posted at the hotel gates. Their eyes slid over us toward the dark hills where defeat drew daily closer. Death squads, war, famine--interminable carnage. The wider world went on, oblivious to the misery and terror. But I could smell the fear.



A month earlier, on October 11, the phone had rung in my home in Jerusalem. My wife, Hilda, and I were unpacking, glad to be back from Finland. I had spent three years of duty as minister in the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., then three years in Finland, and so I was relieved to get back to Israel for a much needed break from my travels.

Director General Reuven Merhav of the Foreign Ministry was calling to insist that I come to the ministry for an immediate briefing on Ethiopia.

"I'm in my boxer shorts!" I told him, annoyed. "We've just returned."

"All right." He sounded exhausted. "I'll send Uri Lubrani to you."

Now I knew he meant business. The Foreign Ministry only borrowed Lubrani from the Ministry of Defense for high-level affairs.

"Ethiopia," Hilda said when she heard what was happening. "What do you know about Ethiopia? Tell them to get another man."

"I know! I know! We'll give them lunch and send them packing."

The doorbell rang promptly at noon.

"Asher!" Lubrani greeted me, one old warrior to another, a shock of unruly black hair drooping down over his forehead. "Meet Haim Divon."

Divon, in his forties, with his baby face, was a simpatico type--always smiling, good natured, and able. I knew him from around the ministry. He'd been our man in Colombo, not ambassador exactly because Sri Lanka doesn't have full diplomatic relations with Israel. Call him a "representative."

Hilda set out plates of hummus, tomatoes, olives, and pita. "Look, Uri," I said. "What is this about Ethiopia?"

The playfully belligerent tone my countrymen take with each other evaporated. "Asher, something important has come up."

Through the 1980s, Lubrani had been in charge of the affairs in dealing with Lebanon--which meant he could stomach anything. I felt the weight of his eyes on me, the heaviness of all those years in Lebanon, the thanklessness of it.

"I'm listening."

"You remember Operation Moses?"


"It was carried out by Mossad with CIA help from 1982 to 1984. Thousands of Falashas walked four hundred miles from Ethiopia into Sudan. The operation was a secret because our Muslim friends in Sudan did not want to be seen helping Jews."

"I remember. People were showing up in UN Red Cross refugee camps, claiming to be Jews."

"Some fourteen thousand Falashas attempted the exodus," said Lubrani. "About eight thousand made it. The rest died on the journey or were turned back or arrested by Mengistu's troops. Then, because of media coverage of the event in June 1984, the operation ceased. Tens of thousands of Falashas were left stranded in Ethiopia. Mengistu severed relations with us and ceased all emigration of black Jews."

Divon had stopped smiling. He took up the thread. "This impasse would have continued, but then Mengistu's arms supplier, the Soviet Union, went belly-up. Arab countries turned against him and began aiding the rebels. He was losing his civil war. Guess what? He decided to come to Tel Aviv a year ago June."

"I had no idea," I said.

"No one knew!" Lubrani popped an olive in his mouth.

"Mengistu wanted arms in exchange for releasing the Falashas," said Divon. "Shamir didn't say yes, he didn't say no; he bought time. Mengistu reestablished diplomatic relations. Yoffe went to Addis. Mengistu allowed a few hundred Falashas to rejoin their families who were already in Israel. Then came the bathroom bombing. Yoffe left. Mengistu awaits his replacement."

Lubrani broke in: "Listen, Asher. It hasn't been easy to find the right person. Mengistu wants a top man. Someone senior with influence and experience."

Hilda scoffed, but I was not immune to this kind of flattery.

"Hilda, please," he said. Now I knew what a strain he must be under. He's impossible to ruffle; he'd doze through an air raid. "The time Shamir bought is running out," he continued. "Rebels defeat Mengistu at every turn. They won't talk to us because they think we've sided with him! And a woman named Susan Pollack of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews has induced thousands of Falashas to abandon their homes in the north and come to our embassy in Addis. The American Jews hoped that would force us to act quickly to bring the Falashas to Israel. Mengistu sees an opportunity. He's ready to deal. We have to get these Falashas out, but we can't give Mengistu what he wants. I won't kid you, Asher. It's going to be tricky. We don't even want to think what would happen if Mengistu decides you've been stringing him along!"

I glanced at Hilda, but she didn't bat an eye. I met my wife when she came to Jerusalem in 1954, one of the few Americans in Israel at the time, on a scholarship to Hebrew University where I was studying law. We Israeli boys used to joke that American Jewish girls came here to study hoopalogia. I liked her instantly--what was inside was outside. Nothing was hidden. I married her without meeting her family. I had my suitcase and she had hers. We started from zero. I was the son of a barber. She came from a family of modest means. She knew what it was to marry an Israeli and come here to live. It hasn't always been easy.

"We know what happened to Yoffe," she said in her easy Hebrew with its Boston vowels. From the look on her face, I could see her concern. But I also knew she would want me to go.

I turned to Lubrani. "You want me to go like Moses to this Stalin of Africa and say, in so many words, 'Let my people go!' But what happens if God doesn't come down to help me out with miracles and plagues?"

"Nu," said Lubrani. "If God doesn't appear we have the next best thing."

"And what's that?"

"The Americans!"

Even Hilda had to laugh.


The Hyena Feeders

Absolutism tempered by assassination.

--Count Munster

A month later, there I was in the back of the Peugeot, with Lubrani by my side, preparing to meet Mengistu. I wasn't sure what to expect. Mengistu was called the Butcher of Addis, a man who reportedly rose to power by killing Emperor Haile-Selassie in the back of a limousine with his bare hands. Since his reign began, his army or his oppressive rule had killed more than one million Ethiopians. That was the reason why he was also called the Black Stalin of Africa.

We pulled up to a crossing guard at the presidential palace. There was a neat guardhouse and soldiers dressed in crisp green khaki jackets, green pants, high black boots, and khaki military caps drawn forward, members of Mengistu's special unit--ten thousand troops under his personal command. They didn't bother to check our papers; we were expected. A paved drive curved through groomed grounds to wide marble steps that led into a modern one-story building, freshly painted white. This was where Mengistu worked, but nobody knew where he slept. Sources said he lived a simple life, which indicated the complexity of his character.

It was odd, but I was looking forward to this meeting. Call it morbid curiosity: I had met with many world leaders but no one of quite this caliber of evil. I wanted to take measure of the man, to look for weakness, to see how I would stand against him.

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