Stephen Daisley Stephen Daisley

Pure chutzpah: the breathtaking daring of Operation Moses

The thrilling story of how, in the mid-1980s, Mossad agents smuggled Ethiopian Jews to Israel gets a new airing from Raffi Berg

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 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 ultra-nationalist signed the peace treaty with Egypt that returned the 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.’

That unexpected order from a mercurial leader began a train of events that led to Operation Moses, the covert immigration to Israel of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, whom the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate had only latterly recognised as halachically Jewish. How they ended up in Ethiopia is the subject of legends, but no firm historical answer; yet 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 realisation over a series of months 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 shores of the Red Sea, convincing Sudan 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 sneaked Jews out of the refugee camps in Sudan to which they had journeyed.

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