OneWorld Magazine presents

by Dr.Ruth Westheimer and
Dr.Steven Kaplan

Ethiopian Falasha

"Anyone who has ever flown with the Israeli national airlines, El Al, knows it is an experience unlike that found on other airlines anywhere else in the world. From the minute the seatbelt sign goes off at the beginning of the flight until it is turned on again at the end, the entire plane seems to be in perpetual motion. Orthodox Jews, having somehow reckoned the appropriate time for the afternoon service while zooming across time zones, recite their prayers. Other passengers wander up and down the aisles, periodically discovering long-lost friends or just engaging in a quick round of "Jewish geography" with a new acquaintance. One meal has no sooner ended than the next one begins. "

Yet even by the unusual standards of El Al, the Boeing 747 that made its way from the besieged Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on May 25 1991 was an extraordinary sight. For one thing it carried almost eleven hundred passengers, a record for civil aviation. They had boarded the plane in just thirty-seven minutes. Since the conventional flight safety announcements were rendered irrelevant by the crowding, they were omitted. Women were requested, however, to remove infants from their back-carriers during takeoff.

Despite the inevitable discomfort of many of the passengers, the plane, which carried among its three hundred children a baby born only minutes before takeoff, was almost silent. Nor were the passengers particularly concerned with the in-flight meals (there were none), the fate of their luggage (even their carry-on was minimal), the in-flight movie (cartoons and El Al publicity films), or the possibility of long lines at customs or passport control.

The hostess call buttons were quiet throughout the flight. Those who were familiar with the normal routine of international air travel, the crew, translators, and other staff on the plane, were far too involved with their history-making mission to give much attention to such mundane issues. The vast majority of the passengers, however, had never been on a plane or at an airport and had only one thought: After generations of longing and praying, they would soon be in the Promised Land. They were Ethiopian Jews, and "Operation Solomon" was bringing them to their new home.

The passengers on this one plane were less than 10 percent of the fourteen thousand Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel in less than thirty-six hours. Never had so many olim (immigrants) entered the country in so short a period. The Jews of Ethiopia, who had waited longer than any other Jewish community to have their right to live in Israel recognized, were making up for lost time.

During the period 1980-Haze over forty thousand Ethiopian Jews left their native land and immigrated to Israel. Rarely in human history has an entire community been transplanted from one culture to another in such a short period. This book could not have been written without the help of all those we have mentioned in the acknowledgments. More significantly, the story it seeks to tell would not have come about were it not for the courage, daring, imagination, and dedication of countless individuals and organizations. Inevitably, in the course of their activities, there were errors both of judgment and of execution. We do not intend to ignore these. Neither, however, have we set out to write an expose. Rather, we seek to understand the combined efforts of both immigrants and those assisting them to build a shared future.

Return to Ethiopia Index | 1. Surviving Salvation | 2. Inventing Tradition?
3. Old Virgins to Soldiers | 4. Translating Culture | 5. Book & PBS Doco

*** Dr.Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Israel as a 17-year-old orphan, is and Adjunct Associate Professor at New York University. Widely known as "Dr.Ruth," the host of a variety of television and radio shows, she is the driving force behind a one-hour documentary on Ethiopian Jews. Dr.Steven Kaplan is a senior lecturer in Comparative Religion and African Studies Department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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