Operation Solomon: A heroic airlift that changed lives

Operation Solomon highlighted the extraordinary lengths the Jewish state would take to ensure the safety and well-being of its people.
Jessica Evans Avatar
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Operation Solomon: In 1991, this large-scale, meticulously planned airlift conducted by the Israeli government in collaboration with international organizations had one goal. Help get Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This mission sought to rescue Ethiopian Jews from their war-ravaged and famine-stricken homeland and transport them to Israel. A pivotal moment in the history of both Ethiopian Jewry and Israel, Operation Solomon highlighted the extraordinary lengths the Jewish state would take to ensure the safety and well-being of its people.

The Plight of Ethiopian Jews

The Ethiopian Jewish community, or Beta Israel, boasts a rich and ancient history spanning over two millennia. Nevertheless, Ethiopian Jews encountered considerable hardship and persecution, as they were often marginalized and targeted by the predominantly Christian society. Compounded by Ethiopia’s deteriorating political climate and the 1980s famine, the Ethiopian Jews found themselves battling for survival.

Early Attempts at Immigration

Before Operation Solomon, there were several secret efforts to help Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel. Between 1977 and 1984, Operation Brothers worked to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan. Additionally, the Jewish Agency for Israel played a crucial role in organizing these early immigration initiatives. However, many Ethiopian Jews lost their lives while attempting this treacherous voyage to Israel.

operation solomon ethiopia
An abandoned synagogue in a Jewish village which became a tourist attraction after desertion of its inhabitants in 1991. No rural Jewish communities remained in Ethiopia after the transfer operation to Addis Ababa that had taken place between 1988 and 1991.

Operation Moses and Operation Sheba

Subsequently, the Israeli government launched Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Sheba (1985) to transport more Ethiopian Jews to Israel. These missions were better organized and coordinated. In turn, the Israelis airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews airlifted from Sudanese refugee camps. Yet, due to political and logistical complications, both operations were prematurely halted. This left thousands stranded.

Operation Solomon: The Massive Airlift

In 1991, the Ethiopian government teetered on the brink of collapse. Israel seized a narrow opportunity to rescue the remaining Ethiopian Jews. This undertaking culminated in Operation Solomon, a massive airlift operation that relocated 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours.

The mission involved a fleet of 34 aircraft from the Israeli Air Force, El Al. It also leaned on various charter companies, all supported by international organizations on the ground. The planes had their seats removed to maximize capacity. Volunteer flight crews risked their lives to ensure the operation’s success.

Challenges and Triumphs

Operation Solomon faced numerous challenges. In addition to the limited timeframe, coordinating the airlift was a logistical challenge. Not to mention ensuring everyone involved remained safe. Concerns about diseases quickly arose, too, since many Ethiopian Jews were malnourished and had limited access to healthcare.

Despite these hurdles, Operation Solomon was a resounding success and stands as one of history’s most remarkable humanitarian airlifts. The Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel had their lives transformed through access to healthcare, education, and opportunities for social and economic integration.

The operation’s impact reverberated beyond those directly involved. It showcased Israel’s commitment to the ingathering of exiles and emphasized the global Jewish community’s unyielding bonds. This heroic endeavor endures as a testament to the power of unity, determination, and perseverance in overcoming adversity.

operation solomon aircraft

Ethiopian Olim stepping out of the IAF’s Hercules, May 25, 1991

The Legacy of Operation Solomon

Nearly three decades on, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has grown and evolved. Although they still grapple with integration challenges, their presence has enriched Israel’s cultural and religious diversity.

The younger generation of Ethiopian Jews, born and raised in Israel, enjoys greater access to education and career prospects. Many have served in the Israeli Defense Forces, entered political office, and contributed to diverse fields, including arts, sports, and academia.

At the same time, Ethiopian Jews in Israel work tirelessly to preserve their unique heritage and traditions. Cultural centers, museums, and community organizations help educate both the younger generation of Ethiopian Jews and the wider Israeli society about the Beta Israel community’s background and history.

Operation Solomon also stands as a powerful symbol of Israel’s commitment to the safety and well-being of Jews worldwide. The operation has inspired further humanitarian efforts and has become a case study for international organizations seeking to undertake similar large-scale rescue missions. As the story of Operation Solomon is passed down through generations, it will continue to serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of humanitarian efforts, unity, and determination in overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges.