Menachem Begin was Israel’s most reviled and misunderstood prime minister. Reviled by Britain for his paramilitary activities against the British Army in Palestine, Begin was also a keen admirer of the Westminster parliamentary system and English common law. Reviled by Jimmy Carter as a hawk who refused to cede an inch of territory, this ultranationalist signed the peace treaty with Egypt that returned Sinai. Reviled by the left as a racist and fascist, Israel’s first right-wing prime minister summoned the head of the Mossad soon after his victory and instructed him: ‘Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.’
This unexpected order from a mercurial leader led to Operation Moses, the covert immigration to Israel of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, whom the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate had only latterly recognized as halachically Jewish. How they ended up in Ethiopia is the subject of legends but no firm historical answer. While their adopted homeland referred to them as falasha (‘landless’), they knew themselves as Beta Israel — ‘the house of Israel’. They had a land, Jerusalem, and would return one day. As an Ethiopian Jewish children’s song ran: ‘Stork! Stork! How is our country Jerusalem doing?’
The gap between that longing and its realization in 1984 and 1985 is the subject of Raffi Berg’s Red Sea Spies. Posing as European investors, Mossad agents purchased Arous, an abandoned Italian resort on the Red Sea in Sudan, convincing officials that they could bring tourists back to the country. To that end, they flooded Europe with glossy brochures for a package holiday ‘a wonderful world apart’ with ‘some of the best, clearest water in the world’.
By day, they ran their diving resort; by night, they snuck Jews out of the refugee camps in Sudan to which they had journeyed. Cut off from other Jews for millennia, Beta Israel believed themselves the last of the Israelites and were astonished to learn that Jews could be Europeans. Initially, they were spirited through the desert to a coastal point near Arous. There, special forces lay waiting with dinghies to row them to a naval ship in the Red Sea, which in turn delivered them ‘home’ to Israel. The risk of discovery and death hung over these danger-drenched night crawls; the dinghies had to be abandoned after Sudanese troops mistook them for smugglers one night and opened fire.
Mossad switched to airlifts, flying out Beta Israel from a disused British airstrip, although this only drew more attention, and the operatives had a series of close calls. In the end, Jerusalem paid off Khartoum and was allowed to transfer a further 6,000 Jews to Israel, provided they did so in secrecy, for Sudanese president Jaafar Nimeiri feared a backlash from Arab allies.
To throw off suspicion, a commercial airliner was eventually used, flying to Israel via Belgium. Despite the spies’ best efforts, the mass immigration was picked up on, and, when it hit the press, Khartoum cracked down under Arab pressure. In all, 8,000 Jews made it out, and a further 14,000 were airlifted in 1991 in the follow-up Operation Solomon.
The scope of the operation was as breathtaking as it was daring. ‘What the Mossad’s mission amounted to,’ Berg writes, ‘was having to engineer a mass exodus of an unknown number of nationals of a foreign, hostile state, people who spoke no Hebrew, were antiquated in their ways, barely traveled and distrusted strangers.’
Netflix’s The Red Sea Diving Resort is an entertaining but license-taking version of the same events. Red Sea Spies is what really happened. There is none of the Hollywood coloring-in, and yet the book is all the more vivid for it. Berg knows he has a movie on his hands — part thriller, part dark comedy, all true — but instead of embellishing, he brings out the native drama in an improbable story of a clandestine homecoming: Exodus as orchestrated by a spy agency.
Berg, the Middle East editor of the BBC News website, is not the first to tell this story. One of the operatives, Gad Shimron, went public in 2007 with the first-hand account Mossad Exodus. But Berg faithfully captures the perspective of Beta Israel, not least through Ferede Aklum, the teacher-turned-secret-agent whose own attempt to reach Israel in 1973 was stymied by the Yom Kippur War and who determined that all of Beta Israel should one day reach Zion.
Berg declines to speak as others do of a ‘rescue’. Beta Israel were not helpless victims. They walked in their thousands from the highlands of Ethiopia to the refugee camps of Sudan, many dying on the way, the rest facing death if they were uncovered as Jews. It was a risk they took to reach the shores of sought-after, dreamed-of, sung-about Zion and return at last to their country Jerusalem.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.