Today in History: the First Wave of Ethiopian Immigration

On November 21, 1984, Operation Moses had its beginnings. This seven week long operation involved the air transport of some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan directly to Israel; it ended January 5, 1985.

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews had fled their native country on foot for refugee camps in Sudan. It is estimated as many as 4,000 died during the trek.

Sudan – which at the time had a pro-western government, worked in tandem with the Mossad and the CIA, and allowed Israel to evacuate the refugees. The entire operation, due to Ethiopian government hostility, was kept a closely guarded secret. It ground to a halt moments after then PM Shimon Peres held a press conference confirming the airlift while asking people not to talk about it. Some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind; many of them were evacuated later in the subsequent U.S. led Operation Joshua.

Here in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate refused to accept these Ethiopian Jews as halachically authentic, demanding that all undergo a thorough conversion process. Following a struggle by the olim, it was agreed that they would only have to immerse in the mikveh. However, the Ethiopian olim fiercely objected to this ceremony as well. The two sides eventually agreed to establish committees to review each case individually.