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Sudan aided Ethiopian aliyah

A volunteer at a shelter in northern Israel, holds the hand  of a Sudanese refugee. (Brian Hendler)

A volunteer at a shelter in northern Israel, holds the hand of a Sudanese refugee. (Brian Hendler)

KIBBUTZ KETURA, Israel (JTA) – The only direct flights from Sudan to Israel occurred in late March 1985. Eight hundred Ethiopian Jews were stranded in camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, after the public disclosure of a rescue mission, dubbed Operation Moses, was terminated by then-Sudanese president General Numerei.Operation Moses, which spirited 8,000 Ethiopian Jews out of eastern Sudan, was largely a result of U.S. government and CIA intervention, while Operation Solomon, which brought to Israel 14,000 Jews in the hours before rebels overtook Addis Ababa in 1991, was run by the Mossad.The Sudanese story blended the resources of the United Israel Appeal, a fundraising arm of American Jewry, with the ingenuity of a handful of key U.S. government officials, who had the blessing of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.Gordon Zacks, a top Jewish Republican, worked the White House via National Security Adviser Richard Allen. UIA received its funds from the U.S. Congress as part of an allocation to resettle in Israel refugees from communist states. UIA is the organization that channels funds raised by North American federations to humanitarian needs in Israel.In October 1984, senior UIA official Neale Katz flew from Jerusalem to Geneva to attend a secret meeting with key U.S. government officials, including Princeton Lyman, director of the East Africa unit of the U.S. State Department; Richard Krieger of the U.S. Refugee Affairs unit; and Jerry Weaver, an enterprising State Department representative in Khartoum. Efraim HaLevy, who later became director of the Mossad, joined the group the next day.”The morning’s meetings were dominated by Weaver’s detailed explanation of the proposed rescue and flight arrangements, as well as the methods to be used to identify the Jews in the Sudanese camps,” Katz wrote in the Winter 2000 Journal of Jewish Communal Service.Toward the end of the discussion, someone stated that the flights alone from Sudan will cost about $12 million and asked, “How will we pay for it?”All eyes turned to Katz.”No problem,” he heard himself answer. “The funds will come from UIA.”Weaver, a former college football player with a doctorate in political science, already had expended U.S. government money to purchase and store 500 gallons of gasoline to fuel the four converted trucks he had purchased from Saudi Arabia, which were used to transport the Jews from the UNHCR camps, Tawawa and Umel Rekuba, to the Khartoum airport under the cover of darkness.Irving Kessler, Katz’s boss in New York, served as “paymaster” for the secret airlift, starting at Thanksgiving 1984. The planes were chartered by UIA from Trans European Airways, or TEA, based in Brussels, which was known throughout the Arab world as one of the charter companies that took Muslims on the Hajj to Mecca. TEA presence at the Khartoum airport did not raise any suspicions.The TEA flights went to Europe twice a week, and then re-routed to Israel.”After press reports linked to UJA fundraising killed Operation Moses,” Kessler told JTA recently during a visit to his family, “the U.S. government, on its own initiative, bribed General Numerei and whisked into Khartoum airport a fleet of three Hercules planes to spirit out the remaining Jews and flew them directly to Israel.”This follow-up mission was called Operation Joshua. An estimated 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died either on the way from Ethiopia to Sudan or in the UNHCR camps in Sudan waiting for rescue.A new book, “Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews” by Howard M. Lenhoff (Gefen Books, 2007) includes the details of the Sudanese rescue from Weaver.”Israel owes a debt of gratitude to the Sudanese for allowing the rescue,” Kessler said. “We should not be imprisoning Sudanese refugees in Israel.”While we have no love for the current Sudanese government, we owe an historic debt to the black residents living in the eastern region where Ethiopian Jews lived prior to the airlift.”(Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of He blogs daily at